When asked to explain what life is like as a medical student in the midst of a global pandemic, “worrying” and “uncertain” are words that usually jump to mind.
I am in my third year of medical school, and was one of many students sent home from university in March as the country went into lockdown. Swapping clinical skills and ward rounds for medical school at the kitchen table, passing exams in this period was no easy feat. Still, myself and many other medical students remained optimistic that all would be back to normal for the next semester.
Six months down the line, we are back at medical school, but the education of Scotland’s future doctors is no more certain.
I am one of the lucky ones, in that I have three hours of face-to-face, in-person teaching a week. This may be clinical skills, a dissection, or a short session at the hospital. My friends studying in Glasgow, also in their third year, are fully online until February.
I live with constant worry that this all may change. We are aware that as cases continue to increase, many of our teaching staff will return to full-time clinical work, and we could face cancelled teaching as a result. Medical students have now been classified as key workers, so we are able to continue placement, but this depends on hospitals having the resources to accommodate us. Always at the back of our minds is the fear that we ourselves could catch COVID-19.
It would be challenging to find a student who isn’t feeling some degree of isolation right now. We are largely restricted to socialising with those we live with. At St Andrews, we have been subject to two “weekend lockdowns” now, where students have been urged to stay home and avoid public spaces. We remain hyper-vigilant, freezing at the sound of a sniffle – even a runny nose can put us into quarantine.
I have not seen my family for over a month now, and I am unlikely to do so soon. I live alone in a small studio flat, and some days I don’t speak a word aloud until late in the evening. I have been able to form an extended household with my boyfriend, a fellow medical student on placement five hours away. I’ll see him in five weeks, for 48 hours, but until then, I enjoy twice-weekly coffee catchups with my friends over Zoom. This still feels odd, given that my friends live only a 5-minute walk down the road.
Our medical school receives lots of questions from students about what our education will look like this year, but they don’t know the answers either. Our exams will be online and open-book – but this is the only certainty they can offer.
I do miss discussing cases with my peers in tutorials, and chatting to patients on the wards. I miss my loved ones, and I miss a world where I took studying between lectures in the medical school café with my friends completely for granted. Although being a medical student right now comes with anxiety and unpredictability, I get through by reminding myself that in this time of great uncertainty, one thing is always certain – this will all come to an end eventually.
Catriona McVey, BMA Scottish Medical Students Committee
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