By Tarika Srinivasan
On February 28th, 2020, after an hour of incessantly refreshing my email inbox, I received an acceptance letter to my dream medical school. That same day, a conference in the city I would soon call home became the superspreader nexus from which up to 300,000 COVID-19 infections have been traced.
The ensuing months, which were meant to be an exercise in pomp and circumstance, were marked by a steady stream of anxiety, frustration, and disappointment associated with virtual learning.
As first-year medical students, it is hard not to feel that we comprise the bottom rung of a long, rigid hierarchy. We are fully aware of the limited role we play in this pandemic; we lack the useful clinical skills of a final-year medical student or an employed resident. Our presence in the hospital is more of a liability than an asset.
We witnessed classes of fourth-years graduating early to serve on the front-lines of the spring first wave (though reception to this call of duty ranged from appreciation to apprehension). We imagined that in a few short years, we too might be deemed so “essential” that folks would be clamoring to have us serve on the wards.
But, despite our limited skills, we preclinical students decided we could not simply wait in the wings for our cue. Though we were dedicated to the didactic portion of our curriculum, we were itching to be involved in the action. Thus, we sought to expand the scope of what medical students could do during a pandemic.
We built on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement to push for supplemental education that foregrounded anti-racism and minority voices. I have been astonished by the sheer productivity of my classmates on top of a challenging academic curriculum.
We have written op-eds, blog posts, and academic articles, and have organized seminars and events galore on topics spanning policing in medicine, environmental health justice, rural health disparities, LGBTQIA+-affirming care, global migration and diaspora, and minority representation in academia.
We used an election set against the backdrop of a pandemic as an impetus to participate directly in voter registration efforts.
In conversations I have had with my classmates over the past year, we seem to share a common understanding: our responsibilities as future medical professionals extend beyond the purview of clinical care.
This pandemic has exemplified the systemic inequities and entrenched hierarchies that have been perpetuated in our healthcare system over the past several decades. And we preclinical students — who may otherwise have seemed of lowest utility and thus lowest priority in the medical ecosystem — have capitalized on the urgency of the pandemic to manifest the broader interpretation of what medicine ought to be.
To ensure that our words do not ring hollow, we (along with several other first-year medical school cohorts) wrote the first vows of our medical career espousing these values in no uncertain terms.
The events of 2020 and beyond have thrust us into a youthful spurt of activism and advocacy. We are attuned more than ever to the gap in clinical knowledge that will only be closed over many years of training ahead.
However, we also recognize the unique voices that we bring to the table as one of the most diverse classes of medical students thus far in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and academic/career background.
Despite a year of isolation kicking off our medical education, we have channeled our energy into pushing the boundaries of medicine. Now that we have ventured beyond the lines of clinical medicine into justice, ethics, advocacy, and public engagement, I believe it unlikely we’ll go back to a narrow approach.
Though the toll of the pandemic our mental health has been mighty, and our cohesiveness as a cohort of first-year medical students has been compromised, these challenges have also shaped us in ways that might allow us to exemplify the long-touted ideal of the physician advocate. Perhaps it is those of us who, on day one, were molded in the heat of a pandemic that will have the mettle to heed the call.
Tarika Srinivasan is a first-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Philosophy and Biochemistry, and worked as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Mayo Clinic Biomedical Ethics Research Program in Rochester, MN.
This post is part of our digital symposium, In Their Own Words: COVID-19 and the Future of the Health Care Workforce.