Starting medical school in the midst of COVID-19

When I made the choice to pursue a medical school education three years ago, I never imagined preparing to matriculate during a pandemic. After accepting a position at the Icahn School of Medicine in March, processing what came next became muddled in between figuring out how to transition to living and working out of a small one-bedroom apartment in New York City due to COVID-19. Can my partner and I survive the confines of 500 square feet of space while he teaches fifth grade virtually, and I recruit participants for a clinical research study? When will I be able to safely hug my mother, who just finished a grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatment? Who is going to help move my sister back home from her first year at college? Assuring that my family and I stayed healthy naturally took priority.

Like many others around the globe, I adapted to the changing circumstances. Rearranging some furniture in our bedroom allowed me to create a makeshift office space. Facetime videos with my family became a daily norm. When it was safe, I drove upstate and moved my sister out of her dorm room. On a phone call with my mother’s oncologist, she encouraged me to “revel in the achievement” of a medical school acceptance. Her words led me to take a step back and think about the journey I will soon embark on. Doing so has allowed me to reflect on the immense privilege that comes with becoming a medical student. With COVID-19 as a prominent backdrop, I have become focused more than ever on serving communities that need it most.

The pandemic has exposed and widened the many inequalities that exist in our society. Black, Latino, and low-income communities are facing the brunt of the virus. According to the New York Times, “race and income have proven to be the largest factors in determining who lives and who dies.” Across the country, minorities are dying at higher rates than white communities. In New York, black and Latinos are dying at twice the rate of white residents. In Chicago, African Americans make up 72 percent of virus-related deaths. The truth is that this disparity has existed long before COVID-19, thanks to structural economic and health inequities rooted in racism. This makes me angry and should make everyone uncomfortable. As a soon to be a medical student and future physician, I hope to channel this frustration into actions that challenge this status quo. I’m doing this for my immigrant family, my former students in the South Bronx, and the undocumented first responders in the World Trade Center Health Clinic I’ve had the privilege of supporting.

This week, I finally got around to scheduling my physical exam and lab work necessary for matriculation. Recently, Sinai announced that given the current data trends in NYC and the hospital system, they expect instruction to begin in-person with some reasonable modifications. The coronavirus crisis may have taken away some of the celebratory frills of starting medical school, but it has fueled my desire to be part of the change our society desperately needs to make sure that all individuals have access to quality health care regardless of their race, income, or ZIP code.

Horacio Romero Castillo is a medical student and can be reached on Twitter @horacioromero.

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