Medical School Diaries: What it’s like to be a medical student in a pandemic

By Nichole Tan 

1 March 2021

A man in his forties walks himself into an A&E complaining of nausea. He is COVID positive, but you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him. Rachel Loy, a sixth- year medical student from Imperial College London, doesn’t take much notice; the doctors just want him on observation for the day. The patient is young and healthy, there is no cause for concern.

Fast forward to 5 pm later in the day, Loy is tasked to perform a blood test on the patient. “I went back to see him and he just looked so different.” The man’s condition had quickly gone downhill and he had to be put on oxygen. “He was having trouble breathing, he was so uncomfortable, even getting words out was difficult,” she recalls. Even now, months after the incident, Loy still thinks about him. She admits that seeing someone so young deteriorate so quickly scared her. “I guess when we get into med school we kind of know that we’re training to fight pandemics like this. We know that we put ourselves at risk all the time –

it just never felt as real as it does now.”

The UK is fast approaching the anniversary of their first lockdown. The past year has been difficult on everyone, arguably none more so than the health professionals at the front line fighting the coronavirus. The infection curve has been a pretty literal, and pretty terrifying rollercoaster that has seen countless stories of hospitals overwhelmed and healthcare staff overworked. So how does it feel to be a medical student on the cusp of graduation? Having a glimpse into the future at the profession they’ve chosen? These are the stories of five medical students reflecting on the year they’ve had and the impact the pandemic has had on their outlook as medics-in-training.

Naomi (not her real name) is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Nottingham. At the beginning of March 2020, she embarked on a two-week induction program preparing her for life in a hospital as part of her school’s placement program. At the beginning of those two weeks, the coronavirus still seemed like a far-away problem. Cases were still low, there were murmurings of people coming back from Italy having to self-isolate, but nothing to cause any alarm. But as those two weeks progressed, the weight of the issue started to become more apparent. Headlines started to get bigger, newscasters started to get louder and day-to-day chatter about the virus started to become unavoidable. By the end of Naomi’s induction, her school announced to its students that all placements would be cancelled. What was supposed to be a two-week summer holiday for Naomi with her family in Leeds, became a 6-month stay with all learning being pushed online.

“As good as it is to learn the theory of medicine, it’s not the same as being there. Seeing real life patients with the conditions that you read about.”

Even though Naomi understood the position the university was in, that online learning would be the only viable option, she did feel like they had missed out on an important part of their training. The dexterity and human interaction required in everyday medical settings wasn’t something one could learn easily online. “As good as it is to learn the theory of medicine, it’s not the same as being there. Seeing real life patients with the conditions that you read about.” When placements resumed in September, Naomi and her peers had to adapt quickly to get used to working in the hospital environments they were supposed to experience the term before. And while she says that the pandemic hasn’t put her off from becoming a doctor, she is afraid at how fast graduation is approaching. “What scares me more is the fact that I’m just over a year off from becoming a doctor, and I feel like I haven't had as much experience as I need.”

Sharon Sutanto remembers walking down the street with her boyfriend at the beginning of the pandemic. The sixth-year Imperial College medical student of Indonesian descent has been living in this London neighborhood for three years now and can’t recall ever feeling unsafe or unwelcomed. On a pavement that she’s walked a hundred times before, a man suddenly appears out of nowhere and starts to berate the couple. Between the obscenities he yells at the pair, he makes sure to tell them to “get out of the country”.

As COVID-19 continued spread, so did anti-Asian sentiment around the world. Sutanto says that in her six years of living in the UK, this was her first real brush with racism. “I think it was really upsetting to me because I’m studying to help people who are sick in the hospital with this virus,” she says, “but I am still being seen as an outsider to them, a source of all their problems.”

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Sutanto became keenly aware of the colour of her skin and the way being Asian now made her more identifiable for all the wrong reasons. She recalls eavesdropping on a British couple on the train, they were ridiculing three Asian girls who were wearing masks early in the pandemic. It was early experiences like these, coupled with strange, condescending glances that made her think twice about wearing a mask in public at first. She knew the medical importance of masking but these encounters made her doubt her own practice.

Even with her next job lined up after graduation, Sutanto mulls over what she thinks is the romanticisation of being a doctor in pop culture. “In all honestly, the profession is so hard,” she says, recounting some of her worse encounters with patients she’s treated. For her, it’s been a rollercoaster of an experience, but she says her “bad days are made up by the fact that sometimes patients really appreciate what you do.”

In 2019, medical student Michael Tay was in the midst of completing his Bachelor of Science program at Imperial College London. The topic? Immunity and infection.

The irony was not lost on him that his year-long program was interrupted by an infectious disease that would grip the world. The pandemic, he wryly joked, “further cemented the fact that infectious diseases are kind of important.”

As Tay embarked on his placement at an infectious disease ward in November, he worked on patients with various kinds of illnesses. They dealt with a wide range of things, from tuberculosis, to skin infections. For them, perhaps the coronavirus didn’t loom as large in their minds as the rest of the population. “For how the coronavirus sounds, being so scary, the management of coronavirus patients is actually relatively straight forward,” he says matter-of- factly. “There is no specific treatment, so it's a lot about riding out the storm.”

For him, coming face-to-face with infectious diseases seemed to come secondary to the lessons he’s learnt just by watching his colleagues interact. “I suppose there’s a lot of resilience in the NHS,” he says reflecting on the moments that have impacted him. “The thing is, the medical stuff you can learn. But I suppose what’s been more difficult is to learn how to take care of yourself and other people, especially in such a high stress environment.”

He says stories like that have really stuck with him. Seeing doctors and nurses pick themselves up from truly terrible days and coming right back has been a source of inspiration. “There are a lot of people who are doing it for the people they work with,” he says, “I have to come in because otherwise my friends are going to have to do it alone.”

Robbie Hill’s medical school experience was cut off very abruptly by the pandemic. Twelve days into a 50-day dermatology placement all the way in New Zealand, the Exeter University graduate flew back to the UK just before the lockdown began.

Despite missing out on placements, Hill passed all his exams, and is now a Foundation Year One Junior Doctor. Currently working at Tunbridge Wells Hospital, Hill saw first-hand the impact of the coronavirus. His hospital hardly had any cases when he first started to work there after graduation. But by January, nearly 50% of patients at the same hospital had COVID.

Hill says, however, that while COVID occupies the imagination of what the public think is going on in hospitals, for him, it hasn’t had any more of an impact than a patient he’s seen pass away from another illness. Seeing the dedication of those senior to him has left a mark though. Hill speaks of a registrar on his ward that would come in before everyone else at 7 am to see patients.

When asked if the long hours are intimidating, Hill shrugs. Most of the people he’s worked with seem content with their lives and job. “I think if you see people that are enjoying their job, and you think you’re quite similar to them, I think I’ll enjoy the job as well.”

There is a general sense of pragmatism when speaking with those that are about to get into medicine. The pandemic hasn’t really scared anyone off the profession. After all, events like these are what doctors are for. In many ways, medicine hasn’t changed. Healthcare workers keep trucking on because people die if they don’t. But perhaps the change has been in the way people treat each other. “Medicine can feel like quite a competitive field and can contain a lot of hierarchical systems” says Rachel Loy, “usually senior doctors have the last say on situations because of their position and years of experience.” She thinks, however, that COVID has had a sort of equalizing effect. The new virus meant that everyone, “senior or junior, was learning on the job, teaching one another new things, trying to figure out the best way to treat it.” A common enemy gave everyone license to be kinder to each other, creating the camaraderie the NHS needs to ride out this storm.