By De Elizabeth
Tiana Woolridge was only 6 or 7 years old when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. Two decades later, she is finishing up her fourth year at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. When she enters the medical field as a pediatrician in a few months, she’ll be doing so in the midst of a pandemic.
Like many other students currently navigating academics amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Woolridge is completing her final year of medical school via online courses, with no IRL commencement ceremony on the horizon. “Any graduation is huge,” she tells MTV News. “But medical school graduation is so big. For a lot of people, this has been a goal for their entire lives.”
Despite grieving a chapter of her life that looks a lot different than she once imagined it, Woolridge is feeling resolved. While she is not graduating early and immediately entering the medical force like some of her peers, the 27-year-old is ready to do her part. “We went into medicine because we want to help people,” she says. “We want to prevent suffering. We want to help explain the confusing, scary, and anxiety-provoking things, and be a sense of comfort for people in an uncertain time.”
On The Frontlines… Without The Tools They Need
As the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to increase, so does the strain on the healthcare industry. Hospitals are becoming overloaded due to the spreading outbreak, with a dire need for more personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to keep medical professionals safe — and all of this is projected to get worse. According to data from University of Washington Medicine’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, as of March 30, the U.S. is predicted to need 220,643 hospital beds, which would create a shortage of 54,046 beds, and experts believe that the country’s healthcare providers will need more than 26,000 new ventilators to save lives.
And it’s not just equipment: there’s an acute need for more healthcare workers in general. To keep up with the growing demand, some healthcare professionals are finding themselves reassigned to treat COVID-19 patients, regardless of their area of expertise.
That’s exactly what happened to Billie*, a registered nurse working in a neurology unit at a South Carolina hospital. Prior to the outbreak, the 31-year-old took care of patients who were dealing with side effects of a stroke, cardiac illness, or neurological disorders. But all of that changed in March, when her entire floor became dedicated to treating people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 — a task that soon became more challenging when she realized that her hospital was not properly equipped with protective gear, and that nurses were being given contradictory information about which type of masks were needed.
At one point, Billie and her fellow nurses were reusing N95 masks, and cleaning them between shifts, when ideally, such masks are only meant for one-time usage. “But now, [hospital officials] are telling us, ‘You only need to use surgical face masks,’” she says, noting that surgical masks are not as effective against respiratory droplets or airborne particles — both of which are possible ways that COVID-19 could be transmitted. “We’re having to go into different patient’s rooms. Let’s say one patient is coronavirus positive, and the other one is negative. You’re going to both rooms with the same face mask on — and you’ll be wearing the same face mask for four hours. Before all this happened, you could be fired for wearing the wrong protective equipment to a patient’s room.”
In addition to the possibility of physical consequences, the lack of protection is beginning to take a mental and emotional toll for Billie. “I don’t have a history of anxiety, but there’s a little bit of chest pain towards the end of the shift,” she says. “In that moment where you’re seeing patients whom you know are COVID-positive, and they’re coughing and breathing in the room, you wonder: ‘Oh my gosh, am I getting the disease? Am I having trouble breathing, or is that just anxiety?’”
Their Own Lives Are At Risk, Every Day
Even with proper protective gear, medical professionals are still concerned about contracting COVID-19, as over 100 doctors and nurses around the world have already died from the novel coronavirus. Luis Seija, a first-year resident at Mount Sinai Hospital practicing internal medicine and pediatrics, began working with coronavirus patients in mid-March — around the time that New York City began to see an influx in cases. He tells MTV News that N95 masks were soon in high demand at the hospital, so he started making attempts to supply his own. “I have three key hooks right next to my front door,” he says of his New York apartment. “Two of them have keys, and one of them has an N95 mask.”
Seija took a two-week hiatus from working to self-isolate, and is using that time to advocate for his colleagues on the front lines. “I’m doing a lot of outreach and a lot of different projects to make sure that we have enough of what we need,” the 28-year-old says. But as the date of his return to work approaches, his concerns are increasing. He says he wasn’t worried about contracting COVID-19 before he left for his hiatus, but says his ritual deep breath before entering the hospital doors has been getting longer and longer each day since March. “I am scared to go back.”
Chika Lota, a nurse practitioner in Chicago, shares similar concerns. She describes her facility as the “first stop” for patients who think they might have COVID-19; from there, some might be sent home to self-isolate, and others are directed to the emergency room for further interventions if needed. “We do our part with hand hygiene and following the guidelines for putting our masks on properly,” Lota says of her team’s PPE protocol. “But at the end of the day, I have patients coughing in my face when I’m taking a sample. You just never know. So I do worry.”
But Lota worries even more about the many healthcare professionals across the country who are less protected than she is. “It’s really frustrating to hear about people who are doing a service and they’re passing away because they may not have adequate equipment. That breaks my heart.” She adds that some of her patients have expressed similar concerns.
“I had a patient the other day who broke down in tears,” Lota recalls. “She was afraid to even come in, because she didn’t want to impact us. I don’t think patients should worry about that on top of being sick.”
Despite their fears, both Lota and Seija are committed to doing everything they can to help fight the pandemic. “There’s an inherent advocacy that comes with being a physician and this situation has really brought that out,” Seija explains.
But some healthcare workers also feel that the myriad issues being exposed by the current crisis are more than what they signed up for. “It’s really disgusting, honestly,” Billie says of the preparatory failures that led to such a widespread crisis. She adds that nurses at her hospital are disproportionately under-equipped compared to doctors, despite having just as much, if not more interaction with the patients. “We feel like we’re commodities, not actual human beings at this moment.”
The Next In Line Are Also Afraid…
With all the headlines about under-equipped hospital staff, many medical students are feeling fearful as they get ready to enter the workforce. Jamie Ho, a sixth-year medical student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., tells MTV News that she “feels like a soldier going into battle.” The 23-year-old intends to practice cardiology or neurology, and she feels nervous about possibly joining the frontlines of the pandemic, especially when PPE is not a guarantee.
“Healthcare workers should be adequately protected and supported by the management team and government,” she says. “They should have enough PPE, and the focus of guidelines should be towards optimum protection rather than resource management. Infection of healthcare workers would deplete the workforce and is a risk for transmission to vulnerable patients and other colleagues.”
Joanna Watterson, a third-year medical student at New York University studying to practice emergency medicine, feels similarly. “I’m afraid for my country and my city and all its people,” she tells MTV News. “I’m saddened about the lives that we will lose, and frustrated that some of those could have been prevented if we had been more prepared. I worry about the fallout from this trauma that healthcare workers are all experiencing right now. … We see death as medical students, but not like this. Not to this scale. It’s tragic.”
Because Watterson isn’t slated to graduate until next year, she isn’t able to volunteer to enter the workforce early, like many of her fourth-year classmates. But if she could, she would. “Ultimately most of us went to medical school to help people,” she says. “It’s hard to watch this all happen, to know we have some skills and knowledge, and be totally unable to help.”
… And They’re Coming Together In Powerful Ways
In response to not being on the frontlines themselves, med students have volunteered to help healthcare workers with daily tasks in order to take some of the burden off of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Raven Batshon, a fourth-year medical student at Detroit’s Wayne State University, has felt empowered by seeing the medical student community supporting healthcare workers in whatever ways they can. “We’re not allowed in the hospital right now because there’s not enough protective gear,” Batshon, who plans to practice family medicine, says. “So we’ve found other ways to get involved, whether it’s through phone triage or babysitting for some of the physicians, dropping off groceries, walking dogs, creating PPE — the list goes on and on. It’s been really beautiful to see everyone come together and find creative ways to support the community that we’ve been trying to serve for the last four years.”
Even so, this is still a frightening time for everyone — the general public, students, and healthcare workers alike. Woolridge notes that the pandemic has been a lesson in handling uncertainty, especially given that there are so many unknowns: What will happen? How will this affect me? Will I get sick? Will my loved ones get sick? Woolridge says she’s been coping with her own anxiety by practicing mindfulness meditation, journaling, and turning to her faith.
“There’s been a lot of emotions,” Woolridge says. “A lot of fear, frustration, anger — all of those things. And the best way to combat a lot of that is just by kind of focusing on the present moment and just taking one step at a time, one day at a time, rather than trying to plan out exactly what’s happening in the future.”
For Batshon, a sense of optimism and belief in the goodness of others is seeing her through the uncertainty and the darkness. “This will pass,” she emphasizes. “We’re going to be a different world on the other side of it. But we’re all going to be in it together. If we continue to have this love and support that people are showing over and over, we’ll be able to overcome whatever lies on the other side.”
*Name has been changed out of a request for privacy.