COVID-19 and the Hippocratic Oath

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On a sticky summer day four years ago, a class of eager medical students and I harmoniously chimed the Hippocratic oath, binding us to the highest standards and code of medical ethics.

As newly accepted and unassuming medical students, how could we understand the sacred nature of this rehearsed and recited ‘covenant?’

While pledging the words embedded in this sacred vow, we were completely unaware that the culmination of our medical education and the start of our journey as practicing physicians would be cloaked in the uncertainty of a sweeping global pandemic.

This seemingly ancient oath has never seemed so vibrant and alive as it is now, as massive efforts to contain and curtail a virus unfold at an almost incomprehensible rate.

Little did we know as second-year medical students, how pertinent preventative medicine, epidemiology, and statistics would become. As management guidelines consume the headlines, my peers and I have grown to understand these headlines. The pillars for a foundation of knowledge and guidance is how we will do our part, for the benefit of the sick, to the best of our abilities and judgments. We will do this to keep them from harm and injustice.

Little did we know, or appreciate even, as weary third-year medical students, the lessons to be gleaned from a disaster preparedness exercise, just one assignment of many to be checked-off. Knowing that prevention is preferable to curative medicine, we have sworn to prevent disease whenever and wherever we can. The time to prevent has never been as crucial as it is now.

Little did we know how impactful and influential the bioethics sessions on ‘the role of a physician’ would be. Little did we know the importance of those mock scenarios we performed, to finesse our decision making in health care, to allocate finite resources in a system already at capacity. As this pandemic unfolds, we will call upon these sessions to tread carefully in matters of life and death. In order to adequately care for the sick at this time, we will remember that we do not treat a fever chart or a malignant growth, but rather a human being.

And yet in the recent wake of a pandemic sweeping the globe and now the United States, this is what my classmates and I do know: we are honored to join this profession, who are bound to uphold the standards of society. We have sworn to respect the hard-won (and hard-earned) scientific gains of the physicians in whose steps we follow, and in several short months, whose steps we will walk in tandem with.

With four years of medical education behind us, we feel humbled to join the ranks of those on the front line of this unprecedented virus. In this time, we are beginning to understand the dedication, the commitment, the truth in our obligations to all fellow human beings, of those well and unwell.

May my peers and I act to preserve the finest traditions of our calling in a time of unrest, fear, and anxiety. May we long experience the joy of healing those who seek our help. We swear to fulfill, to the best of our abilities and judgments, this very covenant.

Mary Beth Gadarowski is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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