As a third-year medical student, the main goal is to absorb as much as you can while on clinical rotation and then come home and study as much as you can before you burn out. It’s not luxurious by any means, but it’s often highlighted as one of the more critical phases of medical school because of the steep learning curve students have to overcome in order to function as useful members of the medical team in preparation for residency. And as hard as medical students try to be helpful, at the end of the day we are sometimes a hindrance to efficiency—it’s a privilege to be learning in a clinical environment but we are not always a necessary member.
I was in the middle of my OB/Gyn rotation when more serious concerns for COVID-19 began to arise in the news and across our healthcare network. Flash forward to March 18th, when my OB/Gyn course director sat down with everyone on the rotation to discuss what was the plan moving forward for us. By this time, many patients were already cancelling appointments and restrictions were already placed to prevent medical students from scrubbing into surgeries due to limited supplies of available PPE. Within Arizona, the number of reported positive cases were quickly rising, a few of whom had reported to our ER but were sent home due to lack of symptoms requiring hospital admission and management.
That evening, our dean notified us that they were pulling all medical students out of the clinical environment for concerns of safety and limited learning value. He set up a town hall meeting in the days to follow to explain next steps, but the overall tension among my classmates was palpable.
Is there any way we can help? What are we supposed to do while we’re home? How is this going to impact our residency applications? Will we even be able to graduate on time?
A few of many questions that no one could really answer because quite frankly no one knew what to expect. As third year medical students, we need the clinical experience to meet our graduation requirements but at the same time none of us are qualified to be treating patients in the hospital. Although many of our fourth-year peers have already been called upon to start residency early to help care for patients in this pandemic, third year medical students across the country are in a strange limbo—how can we contribute to current medical efforts while still meeting the necessary requirements for graduation and residency?
Each medical school has patched together a variety of options for their students, and at the moment my school has started to offer online modules that we can complete as part of elective requirements, with the hope that the next available time for us to return to the clinical setting will have us finish our required rotations in person. Otherwise, we’ve been asked to continue studying what we can, catch up on research projects, and follow the recommended social distancing practices while we all continue to watch and wait.
Across the country, I’ve seen medical students come up with unique ways to engage while still remaining at home. Everyone I’ve talked to has participated to some degree along a spectrum, ranging from writing thank you notes for healthcare workers to organizing local PPE drives for hospitals and nursing homes.
Additionally, with everyone back at home, healthcare workers have been struggling to find good options for childcare. Many of my classmates have been able to help with at-home childcare, as well as do grocery shopping for the elderly in our community. If you contact your local hospital, you can ask about options to help ease the burden off of our healthcare workers as they continue to care for patients.
There has also been a national blood shortage due to COVID-19, but donating blood has still been maintained as an essential activity. I went through the nonprofit organization Vitalant to find local blood donation centers near me, and you can call in advance and ask what type of blood product is most needed for your blood type. It only takes about an hour to donate, even if you are a first-time donor.
And with the various efforts going on across the country, a virtual bonfire series in the Positive-Change Student Network has been developed by the Care Collaboratory for medical students to continue to communicate ideas with each other and share their experiences for what has worked and what else we can do to stay connected. The events are free for anyone to attend via Zoom and happen every Thursday at 5:00 PM PST.
Although many medical students find themselves in the strange position of sitting at home while others continue to man the front lines, in the end we are all doing the best we can with our limited resources. And despite these limitations, what has emerged in the midst of this pandemic is the overarching compassion, empathy, and support that drew us to healthcare in the first place. Even if we are not essential, we can still make a difference with the simple act of staying home to help flatten the curve. It’s the least all of us can do, but it can and will help save lives. So, to everyone who finds themselves in the awkward in-between, regardless of who or where you are, I hope you stay safe, stay home, and stay hopeful. You are making a difference.