Fighting Covid-19 as a Medical student

By Estelle Nilsson-Julien, Second Year, Politics & International Relations

Medical students are renowned on University campuses for their work hard, play hard lifestyle. Yet, since the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, this reputation of wild drinking and stressful deadlines seem something of the past.

Thousands of students across the country have been deployed to the frontline to fight the virus, many finding themselves face to face, or mask to mask, with Covid-19 patients.

After just six months of in person teaching, Abbi found herself in an Intensive Care Unit | Epigram / Abbi Bow

Abbi Bow, pictured above, is one such second-year medical student. After receiving only six months of in person teaching and placements, she found herself propelled into an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Abbi was fast tracked as a Health Care Assistant, assisting nurses in wards; since starting this job she has experienced a fair share of distressing moments.

She recalls a distinct moment where she held the hand of a patient gravely ill with Covid-19. Shortly after, it was decided by the medical team that his care should be withdrawn.

“It is unfair to single out young people, I have seen older people breaking the rules countless times too”

This was a moment where Abbi was confronted with a tragic reality, observing one of the first things she ever learnt in medicine applied in action: ‘you are taught do no harm, sometimes, pumping a patient with drugs is doing them more harm than good’.

Another sad moment has stayed with her: ‘we facetimed [a patient’s] family and played his favourite music, and every time I hear reggae I think of that man’.

She realised over the months that such intense experiences only truly sunk in once she’d had a little time to unwind, adding that she only remembers the names of patients who did not survive. A harsh reality, which Abbi worries will lead to huge sways of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) across the profession.

Though frontline medics are experiencing the pandemic in an almost-parallel reality to many other students, Abbi says socially-distanced walks and phone calls with friends are a key coping mechanism: ‘[my friends are] not there to make it better or fix it, just to listen’.

Abbi has also witnessed an increasing number of younger patients being admitted to ICU – a source of frustration when students flout rules. Yet, Abbi feels that the student community has been scapegoated: ‘it is unfair to single out young people, I have seen older people breaking the rules countless times too’.

Jack McAlinden, pictured below, a fourth-year medical student and President of the Galenicals, the University’s Medical Society, adds that he had mixed feelings about the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Though it did help local businesses, the fact that many young people took part in it contributed to the image of students being reckless in the pandemic. Though bending the rules is an unfathomable consideration for student medics working in hospitals, Jack stresses that they are also frustrated by Covid-19 and want the student experience they signed up for.

‘Long-term stigma surrounding reporting mental health issues in the medical profession not doing any favours’ | Epigram / Jack McAlindenfbow

Jack underlines the mental strain that many medical students are coming under: ‘you have to respect the guidance to protect yourself, your family, and your community, but also your patients’.

He reports that many feel burnt out, with the long-term stigma surrounding reporting mental health issues in the medical profession not doing any favours.

Some students fear that if they speak up about their struggles with their mental health, this will go on their record, and potentially hinder their ‘fitness to practice’. However, Jack assures medics that being labelled unfit to practice is extremely rare: ‘having a mental health condition is not a barrier to becoming a doctor’. Instead, he stresses that medical schools want to see students seeking help, rather than letting these issues take over their work life and potentially negatively affect interactions with patients.

‘Camaraderie among colleagues is very strong’ | Epigram / Chantelle Smith 

Chanelle Smith, above, is a fifth-year medical student who has been living full time in hospital accommodation. She is one of the many medics who are unable to commute back to a student house (or family), due to the risk of spreading Covid-19.

She explains that though being in a hospital environment day in day out can be draining, camaraderie among colleagues is very strong. Despite the current climate, Chanelle has found that being on the frontline in the pandemic has fuelled her ambition to qualify as a doctor more than ever. She launched a YouTube channel in her spare time, where she sings (and raps) about Covid-19.

Abbi, Jack and Chanelle are undeniably three passionate doctors in the making, who show the best of young people during the pandemic.