Covid-19: I’m torn between going home, and helping the NHS

“Hi, I’m Penny, one of the medical students” I say openly. “No, it has to be—Hello, my name is Penelope Sucharitkul, third year medical student.”

I’d been practising it wrong the whole time, and now medicine is about to be turned upside down. 

Myself and the other third year medical students at the University of Leeds have been preparing for our first batch of OCSE [practical] exams for months now. The step up from pre-clinical work to clinical practice has been immense but exhilarating. As clinical students, we start becoming part of the ward. We are often silent in our struggle to stop our hands from shaking when we attempt our first cannulas. We celebrate our small successes and share our failures. 

This week our OSCEs were cancelled. We were pulled from placement and the University moved to online teaching; cancelling a teaching session where potentially 200 medical students from different primary care and secondary care placements would be huddled together in small teaching rooms, together with doctors. 

Having the end goal removed was a bizarre feeling. Hours before it was announced I was unable to continue my normal study, my mind full of eventualities. Would they move the exams forwards? Backwards? Will I repeat my last placement in August? My friend Emma, also a third year, came to check on me, and I was simply staring into space. My routine disrupted; my mind occupied. Now with all online study, many of my peers are choosing to go home to be with their families during this crisis. But I am left torn. 

I am an only child, raised by my father. After many years of working in manual labour his health has deteriorated. He is in the high-risk group for covid-19, and to protect him I cannot risk going home from university. Much like everyone, I also fear for my older family members. In the last two weeks, many of my peers have had contact with suspected covid-19 cases while on placement. I’m anxious that any spread in our majority young 20-29 age group could be rife and knowing that asymptomatic carriers may be infective, medical students have the potential to be “super spreaders.” 

The day after my exams were cancelled, I began looking for a new purpose for the next five months. Having decided not to risk going home and potentially infecting my family, I re-wrote my CV with the aim of becoming a Health Care Assistant (HCA), a role supporting clinical staff by taking vital observations and providing personal care. They called me back the next day. As I now eagerly wait for the appropriate pre-employment checks to be carried out, however, I have naturally had doubts if I am doing the right thing. Lists tend to help people organise their thoughts, so I went back to basics, weighing up the pros and cons of remaining in my university town rather than returning home…

Pros: Feeling useful, studying in peace, having a routine, CV experience, supporting myself, not infecting family, saving some money, provide energy to the NHS.

Cons: Isolation for an uncertain amount of time, fear of lockdown, may not be able to see elderly family members again, could take time to get the HCA job, mental exhaustion, increased viral exposure (this was the last thing I thought of funnily enough).

I realised I craved that routine that placement gave me. That feeling of usefulness that drove me to medicine in the first place. Equally, my family members feared for my safety, citing the young doctors’ deaths in Wuhan. We simply don’t know enough for me to say, “I’ll be okay.” As I wait for my telephone interview (If I’m lucky), I still feel that tightness in my chest with a feeling of urgency. I want to join the NHS. It may be before my time, but we will eventually be the surgeons, GPs, A&E doctors of the future. I can’t stand by and let this pandemic blow over without lifting a finger.

In the meantime, I will try to maintain a sense of normality, continuing to practice my OCSE examinations and testing myself on our core conditions for this year. After all, avoiding these responsibilities will only roll them over to the penultimate and rumoured hardest year of medical school, fourth year.

Penelope Sucharitkul (Penny) is a third-year medical student at the University of Leeds. She has interests in academic surgery and widening access to medicine. 

Twitter: @PPJSucharitkul 

Declarations: PPJ Sucharitkul is funded by Heart Research UK as a EXSEL@Leeds scholar and funded by a Laidlaw academic scholarship. She has no conflict of interest.