I am a proud, first-generation, Chinese American graduating from the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell on April 10 — a month early. My mother’s family is from Wuhan, China, a beautiful metropolitan city where I spent many summers as a child. It is now forever linked with the birth of the 2019 coronavirus pandemic.
In January, my relatives in Wuhan sent reports of a mysterious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like illness infecting citizens in the city. I hoped this new “mystery virus” would stay overseas. However, by March, the United States had its first confirmed case of COVID-19.
Since then, the number of cases in the United States has exploded and significantly impacted our health care system and everyday lives. As we discovered, no one is immune from the virus or its deadly reach.
One of my close friends, an internal medicine resident at Lenox Hill Hospital, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 after working tirelessly for a month in the intensive care unit. She is recovering at home, but she is itching to go back to the hospital and rejoin the fight. In a time of uncertainty, her bravery, and the bravery of my mentors, inspires me to serve.
On March 26, our school said it would allow medical students to graduate early and work in the emergency departments or internal medicine floors caring for COVID-19 patients. After receiving the call to action, my partner, Matthew Theoharakis, who is also a student at the medical school, and I both said: “Well, I guess we’re going in, right?
It was not an easy discussion.
The Hippocratic Oath demands of us: “I will not be ashamed to say, ‘I know not,’ nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.”
That line stands out as I reflect on both the risks and benefits of volunteering during this pandemic. The risks are many. Fourth-year medical students graduate in May and start their intern year, 12 months of supervision and scrutiny that transitions into graduating levels of responsibility and autonomy. However, with limited resources during this time of great need, we are called to serve even if the traditional intern year has changed.
The benefits are also many. In Wuhan, my mother’s colleagues (she trained as an obstetrician-gynecologist before moving to America) report that their nurses were working a more manageable four- to six-hour shifts and their doctors were working six- to eight-hour shifts. I hope that with my classmates and I entering early, we can help provide relief to our exhausted health care colleagues by following China’s example and shortening the length of the shifts per person.
The decision to volunteer is personal. Many of my classmates have circumstances that would make it irresponsible for them to work. Some do not want to risk exposing their non-medical roommates to the virus. Others live with elderly grandparents at high risk for severe complications if infected.
Volunteering is not an easy decision, but for my partner and I, it is the right thing to do. I think of my family in Wuhan and here in the United States and feel compelled to do my small part.
This was not how I envisioned my fourth year of medical school, but who among us is living the life they planned on even a month ago? My classmates and I will do our best to care for patients and one another. And, as we care for those who are ill and simultaneously learn during our intern year, it would be wise for newly minted physicians and our seasoned colleagues to remember our Hippocratic Oath, and be unafraid to say “I don’t know” and ask for help when needed.
Lei Alexander Qin will graduate from the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell on Friday. He and his partner will work within the Northwell Health system prior to beginning their residencies in obstetrics and gynecology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and pediatrics at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital/Columbia University, respectively
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