“Emergency Care for America's Heroes”

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Finding new roles and possibilities in the non-clinical setting: A medical student perspective during COVID-19

ENS Saki Kitadai

It was shocking to find that email in my inbox on March 16th, addressed to our entire class from the Dean’s office. The words “rapidity” and “serious” were embedded within it, but one particular phrase hung heavily on my mind: today will be your final day. Due to COVID-19, we were dismissed from all clinical sites until further notice. I sat there stunned, less so by the inevitable decision that had been looming over our heads for weeks, but by a sense of loss that only grew in the following days as we transitioned from hospital to virtual learning. As a third-year medical student, this past year was about finally applying our classroom knowledge and learning from patients, clinical decision-making, and the triumphs and lessons embedded in the process of disease management. We’d been taught how to function on a multifaceted team, and act in our own capacity as students to help provide patient care. Finally, after spending most of the year learning about and experiencing a wide range of specialties, I had come across emergency medicine and felt like I’d found the field for me. I couldn’t wait to spend more time in the emergency department after my final clerkship. However, we had lost our hospital privileges overnight, and with them a sense of belonging that we’d nurtured over our year in the clinical environment. 

Looking back, I was my own biggest obstacle in the first few weeks away from the hospital. On one hand, there were the general worries brought on by the pandemic, including the high-risk members in my home, the health of family living far away, navigating social distancing in a small and overcrowded neighborhood, and having future plans placed on hold. On the other, I felt grief and guilt over my own inaction at a time when the entire healthcare system was under duress, and my own mentors and friends remained at the front lines of the crisis. If only I’d been further along in my training! If only my obligation was to get out there instead of staying in class! 

However, the initial panic eventually gave way to forward momentum. One of the wonderful things that I and many others have witnessed during the time is the ability of people to come together and build one another up in new and creative ways. I am proud of members of my own class who have taken the opportunity to mobilize volunteer groups, deliver groceries, and help with case tracking all over the country. I found my support in a group of fellow students who noticed that buildings and campuses all over Massachusetts were being vacated in the wake of the COVID outbreak, at the same time that organizations were urging local government to reduce the burden of disease among individuals experiencing homelessness and/or incarceration. Over the next few weeks, we wrote proposal letters to our university administrations advocating for dormitory spaces to be allocated to unhoused members of the community. Along with the help of my friends and mentors, I began facilitating an intercollegiate coalition of students from all over Greater Boston who have worked together to draft letters to school administrations and advocated to local legislators to increase housing supports using spare campus and hotel spaces. 

Through this process, I have met students and stakeholders of all backgrounds, learned more about the intersection of medicine, law, and public health than I ever did in my school courses, and have been humbled by those who have dedicated their entire careers to health equity and service. Furthermore, I have been reminded of the ways that emergency medicine is public health medicine, and how my ability to advocate for both medically and socially vulnerable populations will impact the acute illnesses that I hope to eventually manage in the emergency department. Despite the initial shock of being taken “out of action” in my clerkships, I am grateful for the opportunity to redefine what it means for me to take action outside of the hospital. That being said, THANK YOU to all those who continue to dedicate themselves to the health and care of others in the clinical setting!

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