I never imagined that I would start medical school in a global pandemic. In fact, I never imagined that I would even live through a global pandemic. The idea of a virus that could overwhelm our entire population seemed very surreal and, by the same token, starting medical school also seemed very surreal — until both things actually happened. I will not lie and say that joy or excitement were the emotions that dominated during those days — I was scared. Yet, I found myself entering the clinical center anyway, with a separation of fabric, plastic and six feet between myself and those around me.
I was not alone in starting this journey through medicine, given that nearly 200 other eager faces stared back at me through my computer screen, but Zoom has a funny way of making you feel worlds apart, even if your classmates are just down the street or in the next apartment complex. It was not what I had expected after years of dreaming about this moment, and I do not think that I was the only one that became disheartened. I remember trying on my white coat for pictures on the day of our virtual white coat ceremony and it did not feel right; sure, it was a little big, but more than that it felt like it did not truly belong to me. My brand new stethoscope, a gift from my proud parents, felt ornamental. It seemed that the more isolated we all became, the worse things got in the world. With each missed milestone in our medical school career came a new virus variant. Despite our spatial distance, though, we all felt the collective sigh of relief when we heard the news that a vaccine had been approved. At that moment, I felt as if my medical school experience truly began.
I started volunteering at the vaccination clinic only weeks after the rollout. I felt something familiar there, familiar, but also long-forgotten. It was in the smiles of my fellow volunteers, so big that no mask or face shield could hide them, and their relaxing shoulders that released nearly a year’s worth of stress. The feeling was in the glittering eyes of each patient that presented to the clinic, whether from joy or sadness I was not sure. It took me a moment to place the feeling that emanated from the clinic, given that it had been lost for so long. I realized that I had forgotten the feeling of hope in the months that preceded. The illness anxiety, the burden of a challenging new curriculum and the isolation of lockdown had all but eliminated hope from my vocabulary. I had tucked that word away, knowing that I would not need it anytime soon. Yet, here, in the makeshift vaccination clinic of a garage — the most unlikely of places — I was reunited with the feeling of hope.
This was an unprecedented moment not only in the world, but also in my education. After months of identifying anatomy on a virtual model and listening to YouTube audio of heart sounds, I finally felt like a physician-in-training. There were real living, breathing patients in front of me and I could not have been more ecstatic with my minor role in their care. I took pride in filling out their vaccination cards and distributing them with enthusiasm. The medicine was tangible here in ways that it had never been before. My passion for medicine, although tied to an admiration for science, has always been about connecting with others and in these moments I was finally able to do that as a medical student on her way to becoming a physician. When I told patients in that clinic that I was a medical student, I legitimately felt like one for the first time. The title no longer felt strange in my mouth as it had during the days of Zoom university.
This was not necessarily the beginning of the end, as we had all hoped, but it was the beginning of something new for all of us. Slowly, but steadily, we trickled into the school; hesitantly, we attempted to identify one another from behind a mask, rather than behind a screen. It seems trivial to recount my time as a first-year medical student and complain given the hardships that others have faced throughout the pandemic, but I can not say that it did not matter either. I was challenged in ways that I could not have possibly anticipated when I accepted my golden ticket to medical school nearly a year earlier. I have served on the frontlines to aid patients during an unprecedented time, if only in a small way, and I have conquered a year of challenging curriculum while isolated from my classmates. Now my white coat feels comfortable, if not slightly worn, and my stethoscope is anything but ornamental. I have realized now that I have what it takes to conquer the mountain that is medical education — not even a global pandemic can stop me.
Image credit: “Protective medical mask on laptop. The end of the pandemic.” by Nenad Stojkovic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.