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Drexel History Alum Joins Team Making PPE For Frontline Workers

By Kylie Gray

Joe Zwillenberg, Drexel History Alum making PPE for frontline workers


May 6, 2020

Joseph Zwillenberg, a 2019 Drexel history alumnus and veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, has joined the fight against COVID-19 as a full-time volunteer.

Zwillenberg was a student in Drexel’s MS in Biomedical Studies program when news of the novel coronavirus spreading across China broke out. The aspiring medical student followed the worsening situation in Italy with increasing concern, and by March, he had taken a leave of absence to join his former high school in making face shields for healthcare providers and other essential employees.

“I firmly believe that the result of this situation — and of every great thing this country has done — depends on the sum total of the actions of individuals. I couldn’t imagine focusing on my career while seeing all of the suffering around me,” he says.

Since March, Zwillenberg has joined a handful of volunteers working around the clock on the Kohelet Yeshiva COVID-19 Face Shield project. A Jewish school in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, Kohelet Yeshiva has repurposed its fabrication “Fab Lab” for producing face shields to mitigate the critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in our area. In just weeks, the group has raised $26,000 and laser cut more than 3,000 shields, which they have donated to more than 32 local institutions, including firehouses, hospitals and nursing homes.

His intention, Zwillenberg says, is to supply a face shield to every healthcare professional in the Philadelphia area who would like one.

Joe getting raw materials for making face shields
Joseph Zwillenberg, BA history ’19, with raw materials for construction of the face shields.

“This goal is achievable. Our primary limit is how fast our machine can cut. We have significantly increased our production by working with volunteers who own laser cutters,” he says.

Led by Head of School Rabbi Gil Perl, PhD, the project shows no signs of slowing down, as requests for the donated shields continue to pour in from as far away as Michigan.

“I hope that the engines of industry will fire up to the point that what we’ve been doing won’t be necessary,” Zwillenberg says. “But my knowledge of history gives me no faith that things will work out just because we want them to. There has to be a strategic component.”

Zwillenberg’s full-time volunteerism may mean that he must put off attending medical school for another year — and it wouldn’t be the first time. After high school, he delayed college for two years to join the Israel Defense Forces. Part of an infantry unit doing mostly medevacs in the Gaza Strip, he served as the “point” of his platoon, the first and most exposed position.

“I made a decision that I would never back away from something because I was scared — and I would never say someone else should do a job that was too dangerous for me,” he says.

Having once entered Gaza without a bulletproof vest due to a logistical error, he knows what it’s like to report for duty without the proper protective equipment.

Today, his service involves loading and hauling tons of raw materials like cast acrylic into a loaned pickup truck, and spending hours calling vendors to unravel the intricacies of the supply chain. Zwillenberg and fellow Drexel history alumnus Alex Leknes often take turns making deliveries and picking up supplies.

While the team has mostly focused on local institutions, Zwillenberg recently dropped off shields to five hard-hit New York City hospitals; he returned with more than a ton of PETG filament to make thousands more shields. He balances his volunteer work with studying for the July MCATs, with the plan to move forward with medical school applications.

Upon entering the medical field, Zwillenberg will join a family legacy of humanities majors who became physicians, including his father, uncle and older brother. He credits his history education with giving him the critical thinking skills to succeed in his rigorous biomedical graduate program. This diverse, interdisciplinary education also lends him insight into the current pandemic.

David and Joe Zwillenberg donating face shields to St. Christopher HospitalZwillenberg drops off a donation of face shields to his father David Zwillenberg, MD, surgeon-in-chief at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

“Through history, we learn lessons from other wars about readiness,” he says. “We always have enough bullets, and we always have machines to make more bullets, but we were unprepared for this pandemic. Pandemics are the most predictable kind of disasters.

“And studying biology, I know about risks like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pathogens that can’t be destroyed by alcohol or pressure — even some diseases that might be unearthed as the result of climate change. I hope that in the future, we can look back and say that this pandemic was the catalyst for a greater level of readiness.”

While he’s not yet on the healthcare front lines of the fight against COVID-19, he is inspired by physicians like his father and brother, and all essential workers, who return to work each day despite the risks.

“We all have our obligation to the things we need to do to get through this crisis. Everyone needs to find a line and hold it. We’re in a defensive position,” he says.

Can you help?

The Kohelet Yeshiva Face Shield project is particularly seeking volunteers with laser cutters to help make the shields. To find out more, or to donate funds or supplies, visit their website.