Albert Einstein College of Medicine, MS3
March 30, 2020
As the ballet dancer in front of me steps on stage, I find my position backstage. I’m hidden in the wings, my tutu just inches behind a curtain, rightfully called the Tormentor Curtain, so the audience cannot see me or my costume. The three minutes I spend behind this curtain feel simultaneously like a lifetime and like mere seconds. Butterflies tumble in my stomach in anticipation as I watch the dancer take her final pose. Before leaving the stage, she performs a reverence, a grand gesture of respect in the form of a curtsy to acknowledge the teacher, pianist, orchestra, and audience. This is also my signal to step into the spotlight. My anxiety disappears as I take my position; I have solid training and countless practice sessions that have led up to this moment, and I am ready.
In a way, being a third year medical student during the COVID-19 pandemic feels a lot like standing behind that Tormentor Curtain. My training is solid, I’ve practiced enough to be relatively helpful in clinical situations, and I’m ready to step on that stage to do what I can. I feel confident in taking a complete history, performing a thorough relevant physical examination, presenting an assessment and plan to the medical team, and accurately documenting my findings in the medical record. I can assist in triage, perform nasopharyngeal swabs, take vitals, give oxygen, start intravenous lines, send labs, and perform arterial sticks. I have experience donning and doffing necessary PPE after taking care of multiple patients with TB, MRSA, or C.diff.
Even though I feel ready, I cannot join my clinical teams on this stage, as I do not have the right costume on. I look down and see hands uncovered by gloves and scrubs uncovered by a disposable gown. There is no shield to cover my face, nor mask over my mouth and nose to protect from infectious droplets spewed from coughs or viral particles aerosolized from suctioning and intubating. I am learning that this time, the Tormentor Curtain is not to block anyone from seeing me, but to block me from seeing the audience largely diagnosed with COVID-19. The team knows that as soon as I step out from behind this curtain, I am at extreme risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, and I may become more of a liability to the medical workforce than a help.
Although my desire is to join in the fight anyway, my sense of reason and realism keeps me on the sidelines. I have learned, though, that I am not useless here. I’ve started answering the Occupational Health Service Hotline to ensure medical staff have clearance to continue working, and I’m watching children of medical providers who pull multiple shifts. My fellow medical students and I are building PPE from scrap materials donated or bought in local stores in the Bronx. I’m also trying to prevent my community members from becoming part of the chaos by shopping and completing errands for the elderly and tutoring children virtually. Through social media and personal messages, I’m educating those around me about the benefits of social distancing and self-isolating with any concerning symptoms in an attempt to flatten the curve and decrease the burden on the healthcare system.
If and when the curve flattens, I know the clinical teams will have the most spectacular reverence seen thus far in our lifetimes. Acknowledgement will be given to every healthcare provider, every employee of essential businesses, every community member who practiced social distancing, and every celebrity or politician who used their platform to fight for access to PPE and ventilators. The clinical teams and community will also give the utmost respect to those who lost their lives in the pandemic, those who lost family members or friends to SARS-CoV-2, and those who had their lives turned upside down by pay cuts and layoffs.
After this pandemic is over, I will not forget how it felt to be trapped backstage due to lack of resources. Medical students, medical providers, politicians, celebrities, and community members alike need to advocate for sound disaster plans and improved funding of medical care with a larger focus on medical research. That way, if another pandemic were to occur, those who are trained can take their places and perform as they have practiced.