Covid Stories From the Frontline: A Medical Student

Tom Hunter interviews a third year medical student about her experiences of the pandemic.

Q. What changes have you seen to your professional life during the pandemic.

A. I was working ad-hoc shifts as a lab assistant in a hospital pathology department prior to the pandemic.  Upon the announcement of lockdown and uni moving completely online, I decided to go back to work on a more regular basis.  To my surprise, the lab was incredibly quiet, but the hospital’s mortuary was crying out for volunteers so I was redeployed (as one of very few willing volunteers).  This was a major change in roles and quite a lot to absorb without formal training.  I spent most of the first lockdown on autopilot and hadn’t the time to give much thought to what I was actually seeing, which was the morbid fate for the most unfortunate in the pandemic.  Processing most of what I had seen came months later when I was able to properly reflect on my experiences in the NHS throughout the first wave. 


Q. Has this effect changed over time e.g. from the first lockdown to the 'Summer freedom' period, to the second lockdown and over Christmas

AThe summer relaxation of the rules gave me a chance to see friends that I had missed during the first lockdown.  However by this point I was working a new role as a support worker in ICU so I was seeing the parallels of those fighting for their life on ventilators and those on the outside reclaiming their lives in the pubs and restaurants.  I think I felt more guilt than my peers in meeting up with friends again, but it felt necessary to prevent further social isolation and deteriorating mental health and burnout.  As the 2nd lockdown and Christmas approached, it was clear that things were going from bad to worse.  The mortuary was calling out for help again and placement at uni was becoming more and more scant - which is how it all started before.  


Q. What changes have you seen to your personal life during the pandemic?

A. Massive change in my social life.  Before the pandemic I would spend every night of the week with a different group of friends, all over the place.  But that changed, literally overnight and since I have been confined to a comparatively small social circle since March.  There’s definitely been an increase in anxiety around meeting in groups or people I wouldn’t usually mix with, especially as the summer ended and so did the boozy (but well-ventilated) park picnics.  I think there was definitely a real shift in what my priorities were and how I viewed my existence in general, mostly for the better.  Where I was juggling work and uni (badly) in the first lockdown, I don’t feel that I experienced the same burst of personal growth and introspection many people experienced by finding time for lost hobbies (read: baking banana bread) and reinventing themselves.  


Q. What would have helped you the most in your role during the pandemic - which you feel you didn't receive?

A. Proper training and more time to adjust to new environments.  Arguably a big wish when thrown into the deep end in a pandemic, but environments like a mortuary and ICU are so far-removed from anything you would normally experience in day-to-day life that even just the time to orientate myself would have been nice (without the fear that I was wasting time etc). Check-ins with seniors that were formally scheduled probably would have been useful.  Especially in ICU, as there was a constant worry that I was doing something wrong or endangering someone through ignorance in unfamiliar surroundings.  I may not necessarily have fully engaged with check-ins at the time, but would have been nice to know the option was there. Perhaps somewhat selfishly, a bit of acknowledgement from uni would have been nice.  I'm not saying that I would have liked deadlines pushed back or exams postponed, but as a medic, the work I was doing was directly useful to my degree (from direct patient care to understanding how the NHS actually works).  It might have been nice for tutors to check in and see what students were up to (although I do appreciate many are clinicians on the front line themselves, so I'm referring more specifically to those in pastoral support roles), to start the conversation to see if they needed any support, as it's not always easy to recognise if you are struggling and subsequently know where to find help. 


Q. What support (either government, professional or personal) has had the most positive impact on your role?

A. Support from friends in similar situations for reassurance and support from friends not in similar positions for escapism.  


Q. Any other comments?

A. It’s been unrelentingly wild!  Will be interesting to see the effect that the pandemic ends up having on medical students’ education over the next few years as the COVID cohorts edge towards graduation.  Reminder to be kind to healthcare workers and make an effort to check in with ones you know as they are all almost definitely emotionally overwhelmed and burnt out. 

Wear a mask and get vaccinated!


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