Med students are graduating early to join the fight against COVID-19

In a typical year, fourth-year medical students in the United States would have some downtime in April. They would have already figured out where to do their residency, and they should have the entire month or more to continue their graduation and early summer medical career.

But this is not a normal year and one handful of medical schools across the country is offering to graduate students early so that they can participate in the fight against COVID-19. New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine was the first to do so. Eligible students who already met graduation requirements could become doctors a few months ahead of schedule if they agreed to join the NYU Hospital’s Emergency Department or Internal Medicine Department.

Gaby Mayer is one of dozens of NYU students who volunteer to graduate early. (Full disclosure: She’s also my friend.) She had first heard that early graduation could be an option a few weeks ago, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo mentioned the opportunity at a news conference. “We weren’t sure it would really get there, but we knew other countries hit hard by COVID-19 had similar plans,” she says.

Now that it’s official, she says with relief that she can help.

This interview is slightly edited for clarity.

How did you feel when you were officially asked to graduate early?

We all talked about it informally as medical students. We really felt that a lot of us were doing between now and graduation. We were very happy with a skill set where we could go to the hospital to relieve some of the tension. The first response was relief and excitement in some ways.

I guess I would be remiss not to say I was a little bit nervous. The prospect of becoming a doctor for the first time will always be overwhelming, and there is a big learning curve in the beginning. Learning in this hectic environment is certainly an added challenge, but I think we are ready.

What specifically are you doing to prepare for COVID-19?

I have kept case reports and reviewed the medical literature. Now I’m going to dive a bit more. Since the announcement, many of us have come up with a plan for the coming weeks – less about COVID-19, but more about how we’ll change our role in the hospital.

What is your role in the hospital during the outbreak?

I’m not sure how much of what I’m going to do will be different from what I would have done in my first year. But normally we would be there to help advance parts of patient care so that they receive proper care. We are the first to see patients in the morning, we coordinate consultations between the different medical areas, write notes about patients and keep a close eye on them. We do this so that the senior medical staff, who keeps a close eye on us, can teach us both about things like diagnoses, but also give them room to think about the higher-level plan.

The Dean said we wouldn’t see intubated or medically complex patients, so I think they’ll try to keep us out of the COVID-19 areas. But it is difficult to say.

How does it feel to enter medicine and become a doctor now?

I really feel prepared. I wouldn’t have signed up if I somehow felt that I wouldn’t be able to serve my patients. I think I will have to adjust my expectations, but not much will be adjusted to the core things I need to be a good doctor.

Of course I think I am a bit nervous. A large part of [the first year of residency] is about having a strong team to guide you through this new identity and new role. I think I’m a little nervous if we get the same attention. We get the same supervision in the field of patient care, but this all happens in a crazy environment.

But the greatest feeling I have is a sense of gratitude that I can help. I am really committed to patient care. It’s the reason I went to medical school and it really keeps me on the ground. To come back to that is a gift at a time when it is so crazy.

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