By Anna Shalit
It was three weeks ago, the first day of my week of clinics on my paediatric rotation and I was assigned to the rheumatology clinic. I’d spoken to my family over the weekend and decided that since my placement was still going ahead, I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while, as I did not want to risk making them sick. Most of the children in rheum clinic were immunosuppressed and I had spent the train ride to hospital pondering how I would feel if I inadvertently gave one of them coronavirus. When the consultant at the clinic politely asked us if we minded just going to the library instead, I was almost relieved. The fear had set in and I had stopped feeling like a medical student and started feeling like a vector. Two days later the hospital asked students to stop coming in.
Most of us chose medicine because, in some way or another, we wanted to help people. So being stuck at home in a crisis, completely powerless and unable to help, is frustrating to say the least. On clinical placement we can feel useless at the best of times. We’re constantly asking for things from people, whether it be asking the nurse where to find the cannulas, asking the doctor why they’ve prescribed one drug over another or asking the patient for their time and consent, we rarely get to genuinely give back. And yet placement is the best way for us to be able to give back in the future. If we can’t go to placement, will it impact our ability to be good doctors? In the long term, of course not. But the idea of being an intern with almost one year of clinical experience missing? That’s something to keep me up at night.
I’ve gone back and forth so many times about what our role as medical students should be during this coronavirus pandemic. I don’t want to back down from a challenge, and I recognise that in lots of ways, being on placement in a time like this could be invaluable in the future. I’m also not worried about becoming sick myself – I’m young and healthy and I’ve got a far better chance of recovery than many of the doctors on the front lines. Besides, most of our placements would allow for us to avoid having contact with any cases. This is the reality of medicine – how can we simply put this massive part of our lives on hold and wait for it to end? What about when we’re the doctors during the next pandemic?
However, we can’t deny that we pose a risk to the hospital population. Young people are likely to be silent carriers of COVID-19. We could be the fistula allowing the virus to leak from the supermarket shelves into the wards. The potential to bring harm is not only terrifying, but unfortunately, very real. And as selfless as we like to think we all are, it is important to consider that there may be a significant risk to us too. 10% of the people in Australia with coronavirus currently are healthcare workers. This isn’t a risk to be taken lightly. Not to mention, while I’m privileged to be physically healthy, not all medical students are, and it would be completely irresponsible to insist they continue their placements at a time like this.
So placements have been put on hold for now, but what about the all mighty “surge workforce” that the media is in a frenzy about? Those of us who have the ability to help are more than happy to step up. Most senior medical students could genuinely be of service to doctors if they were called upon. Sure, we can’t exactly manage complex patients on our own, but we can type notes, call the path lab, and (with shaky hands) do cannulas. Be it taking temperatures in fever clinic or writing discharge summaries for a strung-out resident, we will step up if that’s what doctors want.
The reality is, however, that they must want us there, or we will be helping no one at all. In the meantime we’re trying to help in any way we can, setting up volunteer organisations to call isolated people, offering to babysit for healthcare workers and most importantly, staying home.
If (and when) medical students are asked to step up and help, we will be waiting, and we will be ready. We might even be prepared. But until then, for me at least, it feels like the best way to help is to do nothing at all.