Wake up. Turn the coffee pot on. Stretch. Read about the latest news. Over the past several years, this same sequence of events has served as the start to my day, and it has continued to be my routine over the past few weeks. However, this early morning routine has been the only thing in my life that has remained “routine” since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
As a third-year medical student entrenched in clinical rotations, my life and the lives of my fellow students were abruptly changed over the past few weeks as more and more schools across the country suspended clinical rotations. No more going to the hospital at five in the morning, no more seeing patients, no more rounding, and no more exams. Our clinical year is filled with countless hours of work in the hospital and clinics, ever-increasing pressure to meet and surpass the expectations of our faculty, and, of course, studying. But now, we are idle. There is no next surgery to see, no next grand rounds lecture to attend, and no date of our next exam. With the brakes being slammed on our busy clerkship lives ever so suddenly, we are left with what only feels like whiplash. What do we do now?
Volunteer. The answer that I and many other medical students hoped for was an opportunity to volunteer and join the COVID-19 response efforts being led by our mentors. Initially, I did not think twice about it. I wanted to be out there. “This is what I signed up for,” I would say to myself and others. I eagerly waited for the email that would unveil volunteer opportunities that our Deans promised would be coming to our inboxes soon.
However, as the pandemic continued to rapidly evolve in a matter of days, I began to question if it truly was appropriate for my colleagues and me to be at the hospital or clinics volunteering. Thus, it began: to volunteer or to stay home? It started with questioning my own skill level and worth as a medical student. Am I truly needed? Was I really an essential member of my teams during my rotations? Do I possess the skills required to help a COVID-19 patient? Despite these transient thoughts, I usually circled back to convincing myself that I and we, the students, are needed.
Another day or two goes by, and I find myself going back and forth even more. To volunteer or to stay home? In the hope of finding a clearer answer, I began calling and texting fellow medical students at my school and others. However, their varied opinions muddied the water even further. Next, I reached out to my resident physician friends across a variety of specialties. I was shocked to hear how many of them were also sidelined and told to remain home during this time. There were some mixed sentiments; however, a majority believed staying home was the right call for medical students. Why should medical students be there if many resident physicians were being told to go home and sit this out too? Still searching for that one idea or perspective that would affirm my decision, I reached out to faculty mentors from various institutions. Most, but not all, recommended staying home.
Rather than attempting to defend one side or the other and add to this endless debate, I hoped to share a glimpse into the thoughtful reflection taking place in the minds of medical students across the country. There is no perfect answer, but we do all have a decision to make. To volunteer or to stay home? While medical students continue to ponder this impossible question, I urge them to consider three final thoughts when it comes to making their decision.
First, learn as much as possible about the pandemic. Do this by keeping up with the newest information daily, talking to family, friends, other medical students, interns, residents, faculty, and other mentors. Listen carefully to each person’s unique thoughts and insights because it only takes one new idea to completely change your perspective. Second, investigate whether or not your school has opportunities to volunteer remotely because it may be possible to have the best of both worlds–volunteer and stay home. Lastly, don’t be afraid or ashamed to adjust your decision as time goes on and as new information becomes available. The COVID-19 pandemic is an extremely dynamic, complex situation that continues to change at what seems like the speed of light. There’s no honor in staying true to your original decision just to attempt to prove that you were right. Keep learning about COVID-19, keep talking to family, friends, and mentors, and keep an open mind.
Justin Koceja is a medical student.
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