Every morning, I say goodbye to my parents as they leave for work, knowing that they are putting their own lives at risk to care for their patients. Every evening, I wait until they have showered, changed, and disinfected their belongings before setting foot in the same room as them, ready to hear about the new challenges they faced that day, the new stories they heard. As the pandemic raged, the world stopped. But their worlds did not. They adapted to every changing circumstance so that they could continue providing care to the patients that needed them—whether that meant self-isolating from the family during their hospital weeks or taking late-night phone calls from patients and team members. Their commitment, determination, and sacrifices have always inspired me, but even more so in these past few months. The term healthcare hero applies to them, without a doubt.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an outpouring of appreciation for people like my parents. All around us, in the news and on social media, people are lauding physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers for their sacrifices on the front lines of the pandemic. Even I have been receiving messages from friends and family members sending me their best wishes and warning me to be careful as I care for COVID-19 patients. Many say they are proud of me for everything I am doing to help, and they thank me for my sacrifice.
However, as a medical student at the end of my second year when this pandemic struck, I do not exactly fall into the category of “healthcare hero.” While true heroes have been on the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19, I have been sequestered safely at home, have not set foot in a clinical space since well before the pandemic began, and certainly have not been providing care to anyone, let alone any COVID-19 patients. Instead, I have been preparing for my USMLE Step 1 exam—a process mentally and emotionally grueling in its own regard. The time devoted solely to preparation for Step 1, known as “dedicated,” is regarded among medical students as one of the most stressful and exhausting parts of medical training, when a pandemic is not raging. Adding COVID-19 into the equation, it truly felt like one of the most challenging periods of my life.
However, whenever I felt like things were hard for me, I didn’t need to look far to realize how much harder they were for others—for COVID-19 patients and their families, those who lost loved ones to the disease, and those healthcare providers being asked to put their lives at risk just to do their jobs. Thinking of these people made me feel helpless because helping these people was the reason that I wanted to become a doctor. During this unprecedented time when there was a rallying call for everyone to step up and do their part to fight this pandemic, I could not. I wanted to devote all my energy and attention toward the pandemic and those affected by it, but as my test date drew nearer every day, I had to force myself to turn attention away from the news cycle and the wise words of Dr. Fauci, and instead focus instead on the task at hand: studying for Step 1.
Feelings of helplessness grew to feelings of frustration as I lamented the exam’s focus on basic sciences. Was this really relevant? Did the doctors fighting COVID-19 really need to know about transcription factors and the lac operon? Weren’t there more important and useful things I should be learning? I couldn’t wait until I could finally start learning real, practical skills, and apply them in a way that mattered.
Late one evening, I sat hunched over my desk reviewing my notes when I came across a familiar-sounding term: acute respiratory distress syndrome. Where had I heard this before? It occurred to me suddenly—ARDS is a known complication of COVID-19. I had heard Dr. Fauci talking about ARDS on the news just that day. I returned to my notes: ARDS destroys both type 1 and type 2 pneumocytes, impairing healing of lung tissue. This was why Dr. Fauci was saying patients with COVID-19 have long-term lung damage. I realized with a start that this information was relevant. The material I was learning laid the foundation upon which my clinical acumen and skills would be built.
Though the connections may not always be obvious, they were there. In my microbiology review, I read about different types of disinfectants and the pathogenic structures they targeted. Alcohol is an effective disinfectant against enveloped viruses. I recalled that coronavirus was an enveloped virus. So, this is why health experts were recommending using alcohol-based disinfectants. There were direct real-world applications of the material written in my textbooks, that I’d scrawled in my notes, that showed up in my practice questions. This material was relevant.
I wasn’t helpless. I could help, albeit in a different way than my parents were helping: by learning all that I could, about physiology, pathophysiology, health systems, social determinants of health, and even basic science. During this unique phase of my training, devoted almost entirely to knowledge acquisition, I would focus on acquiring knowledge to the very best of my ability, so that when it’s my turn to apply that knowledge, I will be ready.
The steps that remain in my training are not distractions from the things that matter. Instead, they are the very building blocks that will enable me to contribute meaningfully one day to healthcare crises like COVID-19. So as helpless as I feel right now, I also feel motivated to keep warming up on the sidelines of this fight, until I’m on the frontlines.
“Healthcare hero” is a label that does not apply to me, yet. Heroes are not a product of their circumstance—they are a product of their effort and actions, regardless of circumstance. Regardless of my level of training, I have renewed motivation to approach the challenges I face with the same commitment and determination that I admire in my parents and other heroes, until I can become one myself.
Career Development, COVID-19, Medical Education, Medical Ethics, SGIM, Wellness
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