Will the pandemic derail medical students’ career paths?

As I sit here and stare at my computer screen for the 11th hour today, my attention has drifted from my hypothetical study material to reality.

Over the past two months, I’ve spent hours on WebEx lectures as opposed to learning from patients, hours on video lessons instead of casual chats with residents and attendings on the wards, hours on virtual cases instead of seeing, diagnosing, and treating patients myself, hours on UWorld questions to fill the gap I cannot seem to fill without the invaluable in-person encounters with patients.

Yet, I’ve shamefully avoided the hours of preparing for what my future will look like in the wake of this pandemic. When I have this quiet time to think, the panic sets in.

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has undeniably impacted everybody. I recognize the lives lost to the virus, those who cannot visit loved ones and are missing them dearly, those who are currently healing from infection and are gaining strength day by day, those who are parents forced to play the role of teacher while working fulltime, those who were furloughed or out of work completely, those who are struggling with the uncertainty, anxiety, and stress this pandemic has caused them. This is a time of reflection for everyone, and it’s quite difficult to deal with the realizations of what will happen in the next few months, years, decades.

I am lucky to be healthy and still in school, but my career path has been derailed.

As a medical student entering my final year of undergraduate medical training, it feels like this pandemic has disproportionately affected students entering the Match this cycle. I’m now grappling with the fact that this pandemic will potentially affect the entirety of my career, not just the next few years.

No visiting students. Virtual interviews only.

I cannot “audition” at other programs to show them that I am an excellent candidate, increasing my odds of matching at that program. I cannot meet my peers who are also aspiring surgeons, my future friends, and future colleagues. I cannot visit residency programs on interviews and get to know their unique cities. I cannot shake the hands of my interviewers and thank them for their time and consideration. I feel like I have zero control over the next six years of my education. This is on top of everything else the Match brings with it that I cannot control.

What if I cannot match?

As much as my brain has now focused on these negatives, I have tried to spin them into positives. Or, at the very least, “manageables.” I’m a medical student; we like to have plans. I’m now in the process of developing a new one. Perhaps programs will offer more interview opportunities. Perhaps I’ll discover better ways to effectively show people who I am through virtual interviews. Perhaps I’ll find new ways to connect with other applicants. Perhaps I’ll just wow my home program and really show them what I can do. Perhaps the changes to this application cycle will not matter in the grand scheme of my life; I am resilient, and I will still be a surgeon.

Many people are doing their best to make the most of this excruciatingly difficult time.

To my peers across the country: It’s time to get creative. We’re in this together, and we need to find ways to lift each other up and endorse one another on this untrodden path to residency. Please remember to ask for help when you need it, keep persevering, show everyone your grit, let your enthusiasm and passion shine, and let us show the medical field how strong and flexible we can be. After all, these are some of our best qualities as future physicians.

To my advisors and mentors: Thank you for your patience and endless support, even if it feels like you don’t have the right answer. It means the world to have someone in our corner.

To residency program directors and selection panels: Please, give us a chance. We cannot show you what we can accomplish through away rotations. We no longer have the opportunity to show you we’ll be the first person at the hospital and the last to leave, that we will connect with our patients and offer the best possible care we can. We cannot get to know you, your program, your nurses, your PAs, your pharmacists, your staff, and we no longer have the opportunity to contribute to your team. Please get to know us, not our electronic application and test scores. I promise we will do our best to showcase who we are virtually, until we have the opportunity to meet in person.

To my future patients: Medical care will undoubtedly look different in the future. If I constantly need to wear a mask, I promise I am offering a welcoming smile behind the covering. If we need to chat in a telehealth setting instead of meeting face to face, I promise I will make the most of our time and ensure our interactions feel convenient yet insightful. If something like COVID-19 happens again in the future, I promise I will be there on the frontline, steadfast.

To myself: I will be the best surgeon regardless of where I train, how long it takes to get there, and what my last year of medical school entails. As one of my role models reminded me, and as I will continue to remind myself daily, the medical profession brings challenges, but face them with your nose to the grindstone, yet your chin held high.

Allison Linehan is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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