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Two months ago, while I picked up dinner for my family at a restaurant in my hometown, I ended up chatting with another customer as my food was prepared. He told me about how proud he was of his wife, an ICU nurse, and of all health care workers during the pandemic. He told me how he pivoted his entire clothing business to begin producing gowns, gloves, and masks for hospitals in the area after he learned about the local and national PPE shortages. I could tell it brought him fulfillment, and I was both happy and excited for him. As my food came out and I headed out the door, the gentleman — who had learned I was a medical student by that point — thanked me for “everything I was doing.” I waved awkwardly and closed the door behind me. On the walk to my car, I couldn’t help but think, he’s thanking me? For what?
When the initial wave of COVID-19 hit, I felt a sense of pride and excitement; I was ready to help. But as time passed, my passion grew weaker. I slowly came to grips with my position in the medical hierarchy, and I quickly realized how very little I could practically do to aid during the outbreak.
For the next few months, my classmates and I stayed put in the safety of our homes as everything went virtual. I was so used to having a routine at school with classes, meetings, and projects to work on. I was used to seeing my classmates regularly, spending time in the clinic, and occupying both my time and my mind with all things medical school. What I wasn’t used to was having an immense amount of downtime and — ironically — it made me really anxious. So many thoughts went through my head. Should I be working on X? Should I be doing Y? For a while, I didn’t really know what to do.
It has been a strange time for medical students. From the day our respective deans spoke to us about “drinking from a firehose," it seems we have been in the passenger seat of a fast-moving car; we checked off graduation requirements left and right, with limited mental space for other aspects of life on our road to becoming doctors.
And then the pandemic hit.
Life almost took a pause, a unique opportunity — one perhaps few students before us had — to catch our breath. I initially wanted to jump into the frenzy of it all and join in on the front lines. And yes, I felt lost without the list of tasks to complete every day. Looking back, I don’t regret these past few months one bit. This has been an opportunity to spend devoted time with loved ones and to learn more about who I am. An opportunity like this may not come again for a very long time.
I am not certain of what I want to do with my career yet, but one thing I know is that the grind will continue, and my schedule will fill back up again. My focus will soon shift to finishing graduation requirements, completing rotations, and applying for residency in addition to starting one. In the years ahead, I may move once, twice, or even a few times, depending on where my path takes me. Who knows what my life will be like. Only time will tell.
So when I reflect on these past few months, I don’t think I will remember the stress and anxiety that came with pausing my medical education. I think, rather, I will remember the family dinners and the moments spent connecting with my parents, without distractions getting in the way. I think I will remember spending my energy on hobbies and reconnecting with old friends. I think I will remember taking a breather and focusing on myself for a change.
Yeah, I think I will remember that instead.
Kevin Kim is currently a third-year medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In his free time, he likes running, playing sports, and enjoying the outdoors. He has no disclosures or conflicts of interest.
Illustration by April Brust