“We will cease all remaining clerkships. Please thank your preceptors, collect your things, return home, and practice social distancing.”
The email’s words were disappointing, but not surprising. Other medical schools had already pulled their students from hospitals. My school had opted to keep us in as long as possible so we could have the unique learning experience of providing health care during a pandemic. But now, safety and prudence exceeded our learning opportunities, and I was getting pulled during the last week of my surgery rotation. I worried about how this would affect my schoolwork and learning.
Little did I suspect of the learning opportunities that were in store for me.
“In lieu of completing the last seven days of your clerkships, you will need to complete the online course from FEMA,” the email continued. I did as it said, thanked my preceptor, collected my things, and went home. Chaos ensued over the next few days; the state shut down, news media went crazy, testing centers canceled appointments, and toilet paper sold out everywhere. It seemed like no one knew what to do, myself included.
I finished the required online coursework in a day or two and floundered for purpose. Soon my school found a solution, and online patients replaced real ones in virtual rotations. I settled into a comfortable routine. Meanwhile, news and social media were full of people making sacrifices to help others; grocery store employees, medical professionals, first responders, etc. Watching them, I wondered how I could help. I knew I was doing my part by isolating, but I wondered if I could do more?
An email arrived inviting med students to join the State of Georgia’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). The MRC is an organization of doctors, nurses, PAs, EMTs, and med students who are the first medical boots on the ground for disasters in Georgia. They establish mobile hospitals and provide medical care. With extra time in isolation, I signed up and shortly received a notice for locations at food banks available to students. I requested an assignment, received my orders, and deployed the next day to serve for two weeks.
When I arrived, the food bank was in desperate need of volunteers. With the state shutdown, more people needed food, but fewer people were able to help. The Georgia State Defense Force (GSDF), a statewide Army branch of volunteers, assigned soldiers to work at the food banks since normal volunteers were under lockdown. I was assigned as medical support for the soldiers.
My duties were simple. Perform temperature checks and screenings for soldiers coming and leaving the food bank, manage injuries, and general health concerns. I saw a few incidents, dehydration, moldy old food, an errant foot getting run over, a head injury, and thankfully only one scare of COVID-19. It was in an older soldier who became seriously ill one night. We rushed him to the nearby hospital for testing. Luckily, it was a mild pneumonia, likely from working in a food bank refrigerator with old rotten vegetables.
My favorite days were the ones we distributed food. Pallets of packaged cuisine were lined up in empty school parking lots. Cars would come for hours, with license plates from not only Georgia, but Alabama and Florida. They snaked a long line around the building and through the parking lot until they were able to receive food. These days were my favorite because multiple food bank locations would gather for the distribution, and I could meet more soldiers and their medical support.
One group had a physician who had been working with them for a couple of weeks. She was from Northern Georgia, but when the call came for help, she paused her medical practice and drove down to serve. The soldiers all had similar stories. They were all volunteers; they all had careers and families. However, when the call came for help, they all threw on their army fatigues and drove from all over the state. Each one was an inspiration to listen to.
At the start of the pandemic, I was worried about how my medical training would be impacted. Thankfully, due to the wonders of technology, my academic studies carried on uninterrupted. However, outside of my virtual classroom, I learned additional lessons.
We have seen a lot of horrible events due to the pandemic. People have gotten sick. People have died. Livelihoods have been put on hold. People fight over wearing masks. Leaders have mishandled safety responses. We’ve become divided and scared.
Despite this, we have seen some amazing things. People have come together. To provide PPE. To package food for the needy. To provide health care. To encourage and love. I have seen how people step up and volunteer to help, even when it’s hard. I’ve learned, from others’ examples, to put myself aside and assist those in need. I have learned the joy that comes from giving and service. Out of everything I learned during this pandemic, I think this will serve me best in my future as a physician. My education wasn’t hindered but enhanced.
Mason Bennett is a medical student.
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