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Med students are graduating early to join the fight against COVID-19

Fourth-year medical students can become doctors months ahead of schedule

New York City Scene Amid Covid-19 Photo by John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a normal year, fourth-year medical students across the United States would have some downtime in April. They would have already found out where they’ll be doing their residencies and should have the whole month or more to coast through to graduation and the start of their medical careers in the summer.

But this isn’t a normal year, and a handful of medical schools around the country are offering to let students graduate early so they can join the fight against COVID-19. The Grossman School of Medicine at New York University was the first to do so. Eligible students who’d already met graduation requirements could become doctors a few months ahead of schedule if they agreed to join the emergency or internal medicine departments at NYU’s hospital.

Gaby Mayer is one of the dozens of NYU students who volunteered to graduate early. (Full disclosure: she’s also my friend.) She’d first heard that early graduation might be an option a few weeks ago when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo mentioned the possibility at a press conference. “We weren’t sure if it would really get there, but we knew that other countries that were getting hit hard by COVID-19 were entertaining similar plans,” she says.

Now that it’s official, she says she’s relieved that she can help.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did you feel when you were officially asked to graduate early?

We’d all been talking about it informally as medical students. We really felt like a lot of us were sitting around doing a lot of nothing between now and graduation. We were feeling really happy to have a skill set where we could go into the hospital and relieve some of the strain. The first response was relief and, in some ways, excitement.

I think I’d be remiss to not say I was a little nervous. The prospect of becoming a doctor for the first time is always going to be overwhelming, and there’s a big learning curve at the beginning. To be learning in this hectic environment is certainly an additional challenge, but I think we’re ready for it.

What are you doing to prepare for COVID-19, specifically?

I’ve been keeping up with case reports and keeping an eye on the medical literature. Now, I’ll dive in a bit more. Since the announcement, a lot of us have put together a plan for the next few weeks — less about COVID-19, but more about how we’ll be transitioning our role in the hospital.

What will your role be in the hospital during the outbreak?

I’m not sure how much of what I’ll be doing will be different from what I would have been doing in my first year. But normally, we’d be there to keep parts of patient care moving forward so they receive appropriate care. We’re the first ones to see patients in the morning, we coordinate consults between the different areas of medicine, write notes on patients, and keep the closest eye on them. We do that so the senior medical staff, who’s closely supervising us, can both teach us about things like diagnoses but also so they can have room to think about the higher-level plan.

The dean mentioned that we wouldn’t be seeing intubated or medically complex patients, so my guess is that they’ll try to keep us out of COVID-19 areas. But it’s hard to say for sure.

How does it feel to enter medicine and become a doctor right now?

I feel really prepared. I wouldn’t have volunteered if I felt in any way that I wouldn’t be able to serve my patients. I think I’m going to have to adjust my expectations, but there won’t be a lot of adjusting of the core things I need to be a good doctor.

I think I am a little nervous, of course. A big part of [the first year of residency] is about having a strong team to walk you through this new identity and new role. I think I’m a little bit nervous about whether we’ll get the same attention. We’ll get the same supervision in terms of patient care, but this is all happening in a crazy environment.

But the biggest feeling I have is one of gratitude that I can help. I’m really committed to patient care. It’s the reason I went to medical school, and it keeps me really grounded. To be able to come back to that is a gift in a time when things are so crazy.