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COVID-19 and Learning to Let Go

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There’s no one with more hubris than a medical student rounding off her second year in medical school, the taste of my dedicated Step 1 study period on the horizon, a life beyond boards looming closer. I was riding high — even when we went into quarantine in mid-March; my dedicated study period went from six weeks to 12. Color me thrilled. I’d wake up early every morning, make my two eggs and black coffee, walk the dog, study for 10–12 hours, wrap up the day with a several mile hike or bike ride in the mountains. Life was good. I was untouchable. If you can’t tell by now, I’m a surgery-striving gunner. My time is strictly managed, quarantine or no quarantine, and I’m very much about control. Things belong in neat boxes, and I thought being left to manage my own time and schedule without pesky classes would help me continue this success. I was sadly mistaken, and it only took catching a case of coronavirus to show me that.

Early in “quaran-time”, a few other second-years suggested we have a small, CDC-friendly party, and I happily agreed. We’d keep it to the nine-person limit; we’d eat; we’d dance; we’d be normal twenty-somethings. Within one week after that party, nine of us tested positive for COVID-19.

At the time of the party, I was — like many of my peers — riding high. I was at my peak for the year when I was struck down by medicine, this time from the other side — as a patient. As of recently, my life has been about exercising maximal control on my environment; it’s how I got to medical school, how I stuck in the gunner club, how I expected to be as a future provider. It’s pretty hard to maintain the facade of control and cool-headed confidence when you’re a twenty-something on the ground writhing in pain calling out for your mom.

Out of those nine friends, I got the most severe case of COVID-19 (over-achieving as usual, I was told): cough, shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, GI distress, and body aches that dwarfed my previous postoperative pain. I was brought to my knees, left begging on several nights to be “abandoned in the wilderness,” or taken to the hospital because I was totally and completely out of my depth. Thankfully, it never got to the point that I had to be taken to the hospital, though with my graphic and unrelenting GI symptoms, it came close. Talk about a total loss of control. It was a wake-up call, one that I sadly didn’t see was needed. There is no vulnerability like that of a very sick person. I was at the mercy of my friends and mother to take care of me (wearing protection and standing at least six feet away from me, of course).

From my spot, recumbent on the cool bathroom floor, I realized two things: I couldn’t control everything, and this wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t have to kiss my dreams of becoming a surgeon goodbye. I lost a week of board studying, but that’s about it; millions of others were suffering much more than this. It was a shift in perspective and maturity. I was introduced to the prospect of loosening my grip.

This sentiment was challenged and reaffirmed when I — among so many others — recently received the infamous Prometric email, which announced the cancellation of my boards this summer. I had to tap into my newly hardened lesson of rolling with the punches. I will still take the boards, heck, I may be wearing a Santa hat by that time, but I will still get them done. I will still be a doctor, of which specialty I don’t know, but I will love it and brag about it just the same.

In the meantime, I think we can all loosen our grip just a little. Be comfortable with not giving things timestamps and hard deadlines, including ourselves. I know my world hasn’t imploded in this new season. Admittedly, it’s even been nice sitting back and letting the world roll over me. For now, I can take a semi-easy breath, play some Pathoma videos, admire our hero eventual-colleagues from a distance, and witness the world fall love with medicine, medical personnel, our future profession, again.

Kate is an OMS2 at IdahoCOM. She aspires to be an orthopod one day. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing poetry, practicing and teaching yoga, rock climbing, and walking her dog, Leonard. 

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