Medical students across the country, such as myself, are struggling to come to terms with the pandemic. The most affected of this group is the current fourth years, trying to embark on their journey of picking a specialty and finding a residency position. As we are considered “non-essential,” we must deal with the consequences of the administration making decisions for us. I speak for myself specifically when I say I have never felt more helpless. My hands are tied on every front: no audition rotations, canceled boards, and the potential of virtual interviews. By removing the option of in-person residency interviews, students have been cheated out of making face to face impressions, discerning malignant residency programs, and are forced into making powerful, high-stakes decisions based only on internet readings and the opinions of others. The fourth year of medical school in and of itself is anxiety-inducing, and while the accommodations for COVID-19 are necessary for public health and safety, they have increased my anxiety and the anxiety of my peers a hundred-fold.
In addition to navigating the fourth year with the extreme COVID-19 modifications, we are also facing socioeconomic turmoil in our country. When the COVID-19 infection rates and distribution statistics finally came out, I was shocked and outraged. How could a pandemic, a virus, something of no mind or will, single out an entire ethnicity? Why were African-Americans, my people, dying at faster rates than everyone else? We’ve all talked about the social and economic disparities in medicine. We’ve all seen those disparities in action on some small scale, but COVID-19 showed us exactly how large those disparities still are and how difficult they are to close.
On the heels of this pandemic came an overwhelming amount of racism. I distinctly remember talking to an Emergency Medicine nurse about how cruelly she was treated by her patients because of her Asian descent. Patients refused to be treated by her citing their knowledge of the virus and its creation by her people. Unfortunately, that thought is not limited to her experience alone and has instead been echoed across the country. I can only imagine how my fellow medical peers of Asian descent feel during this pandemic: fearful of patient retaliation, irritation and extreme annoyance at the voiced stereotypes, and anger at the level of ignorance this country continues to spew.
As our nation began the arduous processing of healing from the heat of the pandemic and its resulting side effects, there were horrifying, back-to-back, media examples of police brutality and systemic racism towards African-Americans. My community, already facing high numbers of COVID-19 cases and so many other struggles, is now facing political unrest because police brutality falls on deaf ears in our country. We feel unsafe, unheard, and unseen. This lack of visibility and fear for our lives has led to massive protests across the country. As with any protests against police brutality, these quickly became violent. Riots broke out, cities have burned, and people have died on both sides. Yet here I sit, hands tied, with my only interaction in the medical field being virtual patients and scholarly readings.
The curse of a fourth-year medical student is being an “almost doctor” but not a doctor. The curse of being a fourth-year medical student during COVID-19 is being crippled with anxiety and having no control over current decisions being made about our careers. The curse of being a minority fourth-year medical student during COVID-19 is being crippled with anxiety, having no control over current decisions being made about our careers, watching your people suffer injustice and brutality while you are being forced to do nothing but watch by the medical education system.
Many people will read this and say, “You can always do something.” They will cite blanket phrases such as “Join the fight” or “Be the change” or “Take initiative.” With facial recognition and doxing, can any medical students take those risks and potentially lose the ability to practice medicine altogether? How easily can a well-intentioned attempt at protesting or providing medical care be twisted and used against us? We have entire careers on the line that have not even started yet, but we cannot afford to sit and do nothing. We can take back our power, ease our anxiety, and help to change the inequities we see in our communities.
We can recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has given the medical field an opportunity to increase trust among at-risk populations. We can create medical initiatives to increase the safety of the next set of protests. We can educate ourselves on police brutality, systemic racism, and the history of this nation. We can start the ripple of change now. And when we are finally physicians, and the restraints fall away, we will bridge racial and socioeconomic differences. We will create a better medical education system. We will be a better nation.
Elexus-Ember Carroll is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com