Medical students are living life one day at a time during the pandemic

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My friends’ weddings have been postponed, even my own cousin’s.

Step 1 exam dates have been moved, much to the shock of many students I know. My brother’s third-year rotations have also been delayed, and the curriculum has unexpectedly changed from the original schedules he and his classmates had.

My fourth-year friends’ Match Days and trips to celebrate with loved ones have been canceled.

This spring, I was going to visit my grandparents in the Philippines, for what may have been the last opportunity I would get before starting my fourth-year rotations – this was a reunion we had been looking forward to for months, but that trip has been canceled as well.

Many of these events were organized at least one year in advance, some even more. COVID-19 has upended all these plans.

Medical students are planners. It’s in our nature, or we have to be, because of the competitive system. Working towards an admission into medical school starts as early as high school. Pre-meds in college have to plan semesters out to ensure they meet the requirements. We are Type A personalities: highly organized, goal-oriented, and future-thinking. Medical school brings that out even more, where planning for residency is done before you even enter the first-year anatomy lab; planning for the type of field you want to go into happens way before you set foot into the hospital for your first rotation. In many ways, planning can be good; we set goals, work hard to achieve those goals, and try to make the most of every opportunity. It’s helped us get into medical school. But in other ways, it also leaves us prone to impatience, anxiety, and worry, especially when things don’t go our way. Medical schools are also prone to cultivating cultures of perfectionism that leave us burned out.

I know many of us have sacrificed a lot just to get here, just to be in medical school – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, medical students’ educations have been upended, disrupted. I’ve been inspired by many of my classmates who have stepped up to combat the crisis in different ways. But I also want to speak peace to people who are feeling hopeless, defeated, furious, and panicking. From class group chats to school-wide Zoom meetings, I’ve noticed the worried tone of many people about their futures, understandably. Some are angry at the administration; others are questioning decisions being made; still others are tired and irritated. Away rotations are being canceled, and many of my classmates are concerned about residency interviews. I get it. We want to know what’s going to happen to the future, to our futures. Yes, it can be upsetting when what you’ve planned isn’t going the way you thought it would. But I also see the gravity of this public health crisis. I’m seeing how the pandemic is escalating not just week by week, but now day by day. Policies from two weeks ago have changed. More and more states are going on stay-in-place lockdown. Medical schools have ended rotations. People are dying – patients to healthcare workers.

The other day, one of my family friends in England messaged me on Facebook. She’s a physician. I asked how she was doing, and she said she’s “doing OK, but living day by day.” That jarred me for a moment; she has young kids and seems relatively healthy, but I knew what she meant. People who are healthy, who are on the frontlines, can get sick too.

I read in the news that these are described as “uncertain times,” and yes, they are uncertain, now more than ever; but when was life ever truly certain? When were things ever truly set in stone, and we could know what would happen tomorrow? I was heartbroken when I realized I couldn’t see my grandparents in the Philippines in-person anymore. But even back in December 2019, before we even knew about this virus, deep down in my heart, I knew that if it’s meant to be, it will happen; I had no control over whether I would really see my grandparents or not. Before this pandemic, I couldn’t predict my future, and I still can’t.

When we, as young medical students, learn to take life day by day, we will be equipped for when more hardship does come. There are patients who literally have to live day by day; loved ones do not know if they will make it tomorrow. There is also much wisdom from the elderly; my 93-year-old grandmother has told me time and again that each day is a gift. She wakes up each morning grateful and goes to sleep each night grateful.

Day by day. I’m speaking to myself, too. I know this is a hard lesson to swallow, but I believe it’s also necessary. After all, we do not know what tomorrow holds. We cannot control the future. But each day is a gift. So let us learn to do both; look forward to the future, but hold it loosely, knowing it’s not in our hands. Plan ahead, but accept when we need to be flexible. Embrace every morning, every evening. Let us learn to live day by day.

Anna Delamerced is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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