Resilience and the Medical Student Experience


Steven X. Chen
Chair, ACP Council of Student Members

Indiana University School of Medicine


The past few months have seemingly been put on hold for thousands of medical students as the COVID-19 pandemic consumes America's psyche. In-person instruction transitioned to Zoom University. Anxiety-inducing Board exams were delayed or suspended. Clinical clerkships were postponed to conserve limited PPE supplies and protect students. As much of the nation's attention focused on the heroic health care response to the crisis, medical students have been silently adjusting to the new normal of a world scarred by death and disease. Yet, we students are a resilient and creative bunch. We overcome our status as trainees and contribute to our communities in countless, selfless ways.

As the pandemic first hit, students were keenly aware of their role as future physicians and their ability to assist our mentors and frontline workers. From collecting community PPE donations to offering free child care services to staffing call centers, students created opportunities that belie their role as simply learners.

Dr. Akshay Kapoor is pictured here in the UMass Memorial Medical Center (Worcester, MA) in early April. He graduated early from medical school to staff a COVID-only ward to meet the demand of a potential physician shortage.
Dr. Akshay Kapoor is pictured here in the UMass
Memorial Medical Center (Worcester, MA) in early
April. He graduated early from medical school to
staff a COVID-only ward to meet the demand
of a potential physician shortage.

One of our own on ACP's Council of Student Members, Akshay Kapoor, graduated early on March 31 from University of Massachusetts Medical School to answer the call from his state to fill an anticipated shortage of physicians. A week after the Match, he walked into the hospital as one of the first recent medical school graduates in the country to begin working on a COVID-only team as his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, faced its surge. Dr. Kapoor started his internal medicine residency at Yale University in June.

In last month's issue of ACP's IMpact, we highlighted stories of resilience among our peers. It has been an ACP tradition to host a story slam at the annual internal medicine meeting featuring personal stories in the art of medicine. Our intention this year was to host the first ever student story slam centered around the theme of resilience. While the pandemic interrupted those plans, we asked these presenters to record their stories and hope you take the time to view their powerful narratives.

The medical student journey has always been marked with unique tribulations and hardships. COVID-19 laid bare the dimensions of difference and growing inequality across the nation. The murder of George Floyd at the knee of a white police officer ignited a spark of protests against systemic racism and showed just how wide social disparities between rich and poor, old and young, and left and right have become. These same inequities exist within our medical school bubble, even in something so simple as our Zoom backgrounds.

Yet, we have to do more than participate in protests to draw attention to the cause. In my first day of journalism class in high school, we were randomly assigned a student (out of over 4,000) to write a story about them. The point was that “everybody has a story” to tell. We have an obligation to learn more about our peers and classmates than what meets the eye.

Implicit bias, prejudice, and racism will continue to insidiously exist on our campuses unless we individually devote time and effort to learn about actively combating them. We often overlook how much more difficult the medical school experience must be for students who are black, Indigenous, and people of color. They demonstrate resilience constantly, from brushing off microaggressions like mispronounced names to battling more overt racism.

The future remains uncertain as we adjust to the new normal, but opportunity for change is certain. ACP has committed to being an antiracist organization and developing further policy to address discrimination and racism in health care, medical education, and society. In medical education, hybrid curricula and telemedicine instruction have been added. There is additional room to reform; schools should recruit and support Black, Latinx, and Native American medical students.

The ongoing pandemic has underscored our dedication to our future profession as healers. We are humbled by the heroism around us and eager to help the sick. The humanity of our patients, friends, and mentors gently reminds us that medical school is about not only about memorizing the science and facts but also communicating the narrative and art of medicine.

Back to the August 2020 issue of ACP IMpact