By Claudia Gohn
UVA sent its Class of 2020 off into the world (virtually) on May 16. Graduating during a pandemic, with record levels of unemployment and an economic depression likely to last for a long time, means an uncertain future for all of them. But young people entering the medical field are facing unique challenges—from disrupted training to health concerns.
Preparation is an integral part of becoming a nurse or doctor, and many fourth-year med students around the country got a head start, graduating early so they could jump in and help at overwhelmed ERs during the coronavirus crisis. But UVA students who were just completing their undergraduate studies, or still in medical school, have missed out on training opportunities.
Michelle Eckstein, who graduated this spring with a degree in nursing, will begin her job as a nurse at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital later this summer. With the continuing pressures on health systems due to the coronavirus, though, she’s afraid the orientation—which usually lasts three months—will not be as robust as usual. “I’m just concerned that I won’t get the one-on-one help, or focus on what I feel like I need in order to feel responsible and ready to be on my own as a nurse,” Eckstein says.
Her practicum, which would have given her more hands-on experience, was also canceled this spring. But Eckstein recognizes she will still be able to do her job. “I know that I am able and competent to continue to learn how to be a nurse, and I’ll be fine,” she says. But she feels the loss of “that extra cushion of your personal confidence.”
Medical students at UVA also missed practice in the field. Clinical rotations, normally an integral part of training for third- and fourth-year med students, were suspended during the crisis. The training was replaced with an online curriculum, including a course on the history of pandemics. Rising fourth-year Nico Aldredge says that, while these were great courses, “obviously it’s always better to be in the hospital learning.”
COVID-19 also put a hold on hospital employment opportunities, as Charlottesville hospitals restricted non-essential workers during the crisis. Mariam Gbadamosi, who recently earned her bachelor’s degree in human biology from UVA, was working as a scribe at the university medical center’s emergency department, where she was responsible for managing documents for physicians. She was furloughed in March, and has not only missed out on hospital work experience, but also the money for her medical school applications. Between the application fee, buying materials to study, and traveling for interviews, Gbadamosi says the process can add up to thousands of dollars. “[I’m] definitely hoping to… return to work soon so that I can cover those costs for just the application cycle,” she says.
In addition to worries over job insecurity and preparation for the workforce, recent grads entering the medical sector also face health concerns. Summer Rice, who just graduated from UVA with a nursing degree, has a job lined up as an operating room nurse. But with Type 1 diabetes, she is at a higher risk for coronavirus infection. “There’s not a huge risk,” Rice says. “But in general, yeah, I’m worried for my own health.”
Aldredge acknowledges that there is always a risk, even for young and healthy workers. “I’m 20 years old, but who knows if I were to get the coronavirus—if I would be that one-half percent of people that get critically ill and get intubated and potentially die,” he says. “You don’t know if you’re going to be that person.”