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The impact of COVID-19: experiences of our sixth-year Medics

30 June 2020

There was a palpable absence of sub fusc and celebration on the streets of Oxford this Trinity term. The colleges are empty, exams are online, and graduations are cancelled. The advent of COVID-19 has surely changed the lives of every student in Oxford.

For us, the crop of final-year medical students from Queen’s, being part of the ‘Class of COVID’ has meant abandoned placements, early graduation and starting on the wards a few months earlier than planned. While it has been an invaluable learning opportunity and a great privilege to help during this unprecedented scenario, becoming a doctor has brought its own challenges. We each wanted to give a little insight into an on-the-ward view of the coronavirus pandemic:

'The final year medical students usually complete their exams in January, followed by a period of clinical assistantship in Oxford and elective medical placements overseas. Needless to say, I would not be writing this piece in an ordinary year. Instead, it’s turned into a bittersweet ending of my medical student years. My post-finals plan was for an assistantship in Oxford before joining a surgical team in one of the local hospitals in Blantyre in Malawi, but from mid-February, I was having to reconsider. Fast-forward one month, I was one of 20 final-year medical students volunteering in the A&E department of the John Radcliffe Hospital as it was gearing up for the peak of the pandemic. I felt privileged to be able to help with triaging patients into respiratory and non-respiratory areas, working as a healthcare assistant and a receptionist.

'At the beginning of April, I felt very lucky to have completed my medical degree without unforeseen interruptions. I must be one of the very few people to have ever graduated in their sleep - a cheerful email with congratulations from our Director of Clinical Studies landed in my inbox not too long after I completed a night shift in the hospital.

'Since the beginning of May, I am an Interim Foundation Doctor (or FiY1) in the Geriatrics Department of Stoke Mandeville Hospital and I’m due to begin my regular junior doctor post this August. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to join the efforts of the NHS in fighting COVID-19. While Malawi would’ve been an incredible experience, so was (and is) being part of this unique situation.'

Mark Zorman


'After spending time under lockdown at home, I was grateful to be given the opportunity to play an active role in healthcare. Time spent in the Community COVID Hub, essentially a drive-through GP practice for suspected COVID patients, gave me an insight into the rapid restructuring of primary care to cope with the pandemic. I have been able to begin work as an FiY1 doctor on the Complex Medicine Unit in the John Radcliffe. I was initially surprised by how quiet the hospital seemed but work soon stepped up and with it came a steep learning curve. It is incredibly rewarding to work alongside a great team to overcome the barriers created by COVID. Communicating via telephone updates or video calls can make a world of difference for our patients, and reducing the distress for them and their relatives is hugely meaningful.'

Molly Nichols


'Like most other 6th year medics we volunteered with staffing during the pandemic. I started early with six weeks of Cardiology at the John Radcliffe, helping the team with ward jobs, and connecting COVID-19 patients to their families via video calls. The team in Oxford were incredibly supportive as we received our email graduation congratulations and transitioned from medical students to doctors. Following national organisation, I have been given an ‘Interim Foundation Year 1’ (FiY1) job in Cardiology at Wycombe Hospital, which is where I’m working now. I am lucky that I was given a job in the same specialty to carry skills and knowledge to my new hospital, and look forward to continuing my development as a (very!) junior doctor.'

Emma Roberts


'Since graduating early, I have been working as an interim Foundation Doctor in Geriatrics at the John Radcliffe, working with older non-COVID patients.

'I did not know what to expect on my first day, having not been to hospital since shadowing a junior doctor in February. I was suddenly a doctor myself, and I quickly realised how different the job is to being a student. I was previously concerned with learning medical theory, examining patients, and passing exams. Now, I have patients under my care, and I am responsible for getting their jobs done. Though I feel like I’ve been somewhat “thrown in”, it has been such a valuable experience so far and I feel my confidence growing with every task I complete.

'I have found as an interim doctor (FiY1) I have the time to do extra little things for patients, helping families communicate with patients via video calls, or getting a newspaper for a patient who reads one every day. My favourite little success is helping a patient with her hearing. I managed to get her broken hearing aid fixed, avoiding communicating by writing and making a big difference to her quality of life.

'It’s strange to think that right now I should be in Malaysia after a month in New Zealand - part of my medical elective that never happened. Even as late as March, I assumed that was my plan, and had even started packing. It is surprising how quickly everything changed. However, being able to work as a doctor and lend an extra hand in this current crisis has been very rewarding and I’m glad to have had this experience.'

Sarah Ahmed


'In February, I was sitting in a hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, listening to the hospital Public Health director giving a lecture on coronavirus preparedness. I was much more interested in exploring Malawi, and learning about exciting tropical diseases, than concentrating on the spread of COVID. I naively assumed it wouldn’t affect my medical training. Just a few weeks later, I was leaving the African sunshine to return to Oxford, unsure of what the future would hold for us students.

'My first volunteering post was in the Oxford Children’s Hospital, working mostly on the wards with children having treatment for cancer. I can’t imagine the fear which comes with having a child diagnosed with cancer, and I was awed by the grit and strength of the families I met during such a scary time. It was really touching to see how the Oxford Hospitals Charity works to improve the hospital experience for unwell children and their relatives.

'I am now working in General Medicine at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, seeing adults with COVID and with other medical problems. Having the title of "Dr" has been daunting but exciting, and it has been a great privilege to treat patients in such a supportive team. I am really grateful to all of our tutors at Queen’s for their bedside teaching, which I didn’t expect to be putting to use so quickly, and particularly to Dr Sarah Millette for her ongoing support to all of us as we navigate the trials of being the most junior of doctors. Although it wasn’t what we were expecting when celebrating the end of our Finals in January, I think we’re all grateful to be able to support the national effort to combat this devastating disease.'

Zachary Tait

Photo: the Medics celebrating after their second-year exams