20 July 2023
This is not how I imagined medical school. I thought it was going to have more cardiac arrests, more trauma and more helicopters. Instead, my days as a trainee intern are spent writing up discharge summaries for consultants who I mostly never see. We’re meant to have our own patients – take a history, examine and diagnose. But the hospital is saturated with junior medical staff and deficient in patients. I guess it’s not a bad thing. Ever since we found a way to treat disease by providing treatment specific to a patient’s genetic code we haven’t seen anywhere near the amount of patients that we used to. Well, so the consultants say. But still, I sometimes wish something big would happen.
About three years ago, there was an outbreak of a new virus in mainland China. I was excited. Imagine training to be a medical student during a pandemic! Imagine the skills you could pick up and the things you could witness – the things that come to mind when you think ‘doctor’! The ill would be everywhere and I’d even be able to wear all of that cool protective equipment you see in TV shows. Viruses usually affect older people worse, so maybe the consultants would have to stay home and I would be on the frontline. Of course we’d still run things past them, but on conference calls, which sounds much better than the grand rounds I would otherwise have to sit through!
When I arrived at medical school, I had a huge smile on my face. Now I feel like I have so much knowledge but no practice to put it into. Each day I feel my smile going away, and I feel myself changing as a person. I heard a House Officer talking the other day and she said her top tip for becoming a doctor was to “remember who you are, and don’t become a slave to the system”. Well, sometimes I wish that the system was more exciting.
This is not how I imagined medical school. It has been three years since Coronavirus began. In-person classes have never resumed and Zoom has become my most visited webpage. Being a trainee intern means that I basically have my own patients. I listen to their stories, I listen to their heartbeats and they listen to my diagnosis. My supervisor signs off on my reasoning via conference call; we’re trying to protect anyone aged over sixty, even the consultants. Our country has been crippled by the virus with thousands dead and an economy stuck buffering.
Three years ago it looked as if we had made it through, but that was before the second wave. The wave was less tsunami and more rogue. Out of nowhere, at a tangent and just when we thought we were safe. Training to be a doctor during this time has stripped away everything I once was. You start medicine with your own bag of traits. Some people have traits like photographic memory, speed reading or mastery in arithmetic. These are the skills that a lot of people think make a doctor. But when I started, my traits were hard work and a smile. I thought that my biggest strength was that I could connect with anyone, find the meaning in someone’s story and look beyond symptoms. The virus stripped this away. How can you connect with someone from behind a mask, glasses and visor? Not to mention a sterile, blue gown overtop that limits any kind of self expression. People who have gone before have said “don’t become a slave to the system, stay true to yourself”. But now it’s not the system that I am worried about, it’s the virus that I am a slave to.
Ollie McCullough is a third-year medical student at Otago University who has a strong interest in emergency medicine. During the 2020 Coronavirus lock-down he had the opportunity to take a medical humanities course (via Zoom) called ‘Life sentences: reading and writing fiction’, and was inspired to write “This is not how I imagined medical school”.