The first day of medical training during a pandemic

The faculty and staff welcome us warmly. They know each of our names as we walk through the door, and further conversation reveals that they have also studied the short biographical sketches we sent in last month. We are reassured – we belong here. I scan the atrium for students I might have seen at my interview. This is the first time I have been back here since that day, almost a year ago.

But the scene is warped from my expectations, even if slightly. I see my classmates’ faces through hefty face shields, which make me feel like I am in welding school instead of a medical training program. These shields are reusable, with thick plastic that muffles our voices considerably. We laugh with each other, joking that we will develop laryngitis by the end of the day. No one stands too close to each other, and no one shakes hands.

Later in the day, we have our short white coat ceremony. Because of the current pandemic, the university has prohibited any guests. Still, we are grateful to be able to be in-person ourselves, at least, a blessing which many incoming medical trainees across the country cannot claim. When I was in college, my roommate and I used to watch white coat ceremonies on YouTube as “motivation” for our studies. “What a day that would be!” we told ourselves. But in a room that lacks my family, I cannot help feeling that it is just a walk-through as we are coated. A classmate comments that the experience was anticlimactic.

When the events conclude, I walk to the bus stop. The heatwaves of a Midwestern August wash over me, and I reflect upon my first day. The pandemic has been going on for almost five months now, but I still cannot shake the strangeness. It is probably amplified because I have dreamed of this day for years.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if my perspective on medicine had changed because of recent events. Without pause, I answered no. Medicine has always been about serving our community and bettering medical science, not about being heroic or receiving recognition or obtaining prestige. In fact, those who seek a medical career for these latter reasons are often left disillusioned when they confront the complexity and politics in the field.

Far before COVID-19 hit, the medical community has donned PPE, dealt with frustrated patients, adopted great responsibility, and faced terrifying unknowns. Maybe these parts of medicine are currently in the spotlight, but they are not new. I may have some disappointment that my family could not share my white coat ceremony with me, and I may be occasionally annoyed that I have to study with my classmates over Zoom. But I never pursued this profession for my experience, even though I am incredibly excited for the next years of training. In light of the challenges I will face as a medical provider, these small inconveniences pale. My perspective is what it has always been: one of a lifelong student, ready to learn and eager to use my knowledge for the good of my patients.

Elizabeth D. Patton is a physician assistant student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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