Medical school in a pandemic: Privileged or slighted?

Moving across the country and beginning my medical training during a global pandemic is definitely a non-ideal way to embark on what will be a very long journey. I came to medical school expecting to do all of the activities that first-year students typically engage in, like shadowing, volunteering, and other forms of career exploration. However, arguably equally important is medical school’s social aspect, which includes meeting classmates and forging lifelong relationships and professional connections. What better time to do this than the first year of medical school—a time when everyone is trying to find their place within their cohort and a time when students are intentionally given the curricular flexibility to do so. The preclinical years are widely known to be more conducive to socializing because while students are busy, we aren’t as busy as we will be once clinical rotations start. The medical school experience that most of us were sold includes having the unhindered ability to socially and professionally network with hundreds of other equally passionate, like-minded individuals. However, the sad fact is that my experience thus far has been far from this seemingly elusive utopia.

My first few months of medical school have been dominated by hours on Zoom every single day, undergone from the confines of my bedroom. Zoom lectures, Zoom meetings, Zoom small groups, and Zoom lunch talks, among countless others, have been mostly all I’ve known. While unfortunate, it would be inconsiderate on my part not to be understanding of why it’s been like this. As we all know, it boils down to the fact that almost all social activities, even educational ones, would pose a significant public health threat to our communities and ultimately our patients. Interestingly, in speaking with some of my classmates, I’ve learned that many people feel differently from me and actually enjoy the convenience of attending class from their bed or their desk a few feet away from their bed. Medical students and Zoom users throughout seem to enjoy the flexibility of attending events and meetings from the comfort of their own home, eliminating travel and ultimately saving time and money.

While I too enjoy the convenience that video conferencing provides, I still believe that many in-person activities just can’t be effectively replicated in a virtual setting. The first that comes to mind is shadowing, which has long been one of the best ways to gain exposure to different medical specialties, especially as a first- or second-year medical student. While a lot of schools have proposed that students consider shadowing virtual telemedicine encounters, for me, it just isn’t the same. Nothing compares to actually being in a clinical setting and observing an actual doctor-patient encounter from a few feet away. Nothing can truly replace standing in a hospital hallway during rounds while an attending provides clinical pearls to the budding physicians on the team or sitting around a table listening to a resident present a patient with an eloquent, easily digestible one-liner. The virtual telemedicine encounters, though equally essential, just aren’t as personally riveting for an eager first-year medical student as being in the operating room or clinic.

Even though I’ve missed out on many typical extracurricular activities, I am extremely thankful to my school for still managing to give us a safe, high-quality educational experience. I feel as if I have been provided with the same content knowledge that I would’ve gotten under normal circumstances and ultimately feel like I am not in any way behind. Despite never stepping foot in an anatomy lab, I still feel as knowledgeable as possible on the cardiovascular, pulmonary, and musculoskeletal anatomy that we have covered. Despite not having met any of my professors in person, I still feel supported by the professional network that my school has facilitated. We have had virtual networking events, virtual specialty advising sessions, and even virtual wellness activities. If nothing else, I owe my school and others across the country major props for adapting as quickly and effectively as they did. Although Zoom fatigue is real and attending extracurricular events in a virtual setting isn’t ideal, our institutions are trying, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thankfully, it seems like we are nearing the beginning of the end. We have two proven efficacious vaccines, and they have begun to be administered to millions of people. Medical students across the country, including myself, have even been allowed to administer vaccines, which is a huge honor. What a special way to not only conclude the pandemic, but to also embark on a lifetime of service. Ultimately, as medical students are being educated during these unprecedented times, I think it’s important to productively channel our frustrations while remaining appreciative of our institutions for all they have done and will continue to do to keep our patients and us safe.  Again, I must ask myself and implore anyone else whose experience resonates with my own to truly think about whether we are privileged or slighted to have begun medical school under these atypical circumstances.

Wynton M. Sims is a medical student. 

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