Humerus Moments on Zoom and Other “Unprecedented” Adventures: What Starting Med School During Covid Taught Me

Oct 6, 2020

Written by Nanditha Hareesh

Nanditha is a second-year medical student at Monash University with a special interest in global and refugee health and medical advocacy.

Nanditha Hareesh, a first-year medical student at Monash University, reflects on what this year of upheaval and uncertainty has taught her about the practice and study of medicine.

If my first year of medicine could be distilled down to one incident, it would be our class stifling back laughter as we watched our clinical skills tutor demonstrate consent and a shoulder examination on a skeleton. Between the skeleton wearing a knit cardigan and its humerus falling off in a particularly violent internal rotation, the screen rapidly filled up with black squares as cameras were turned off amidst chuckles.

For first year medical students, what should have been the beginning of a long and much awaited journey into university, has now become zoom meeting cycles and battles with online quiz platforms.

In the ceaseless assault of emails with the word “unprecedented,” much has been said about what the pandemic has taken away from the study of medicine. From organic collaboration to specimen anatomy— several hallmarks of first year have not transitioned well to an online platform. However, drawing from the inspiring and often terrifying accounts of frontline workers, it is paramount that we consider what we may have learned from taking our first medical steps in 2020. 

“Fever in a returned traveller is malaria until otherwise proven,” the title of one of our first microbiology lectures announced. The absolute certainty in that statement is catchy. But wading through the chaos of publications, contradicting advice and global discord as experts come to understand the complexities of Covid-19, it seems almost impossible to arrive at a similar point. 

We were first hand witnesses to the uncertainty of the virus in our classrooms as our tutors and lecturers, most of them current practitioners, recounted the evolving narrative, often changing and developing their own beliefs. As with everything, our assignments also changed to factor in the developments of Covid-19. We filtered through media articles and research reports to ascertain the impact of the pandemic on various sectors. In the time between submitting my report on Italy collapsing with the impact of Covid-19 and receiving a grade for it, the situation had transformed and everything in the essay was now redundant.

Why is medicine so intimidating to begin with? It is a body of work learned, unlearned, honed and finessed through centuries, offering itself to me and my colleagues now in its most polished form yet. The concept of comprehending even a fraction of it is overwhelming. But as the pandemic highlighted, it is as critical, maybe even more so, to know what is unknown. 

2020 is a collection of countless question marks. Juggling rapidly changing assessment expectations, sorting through anatomy online, while keeping up with Australia’s fluctuating Coronavirus situation is exhausting. It reveals a picture that more closely resembles the reality tales of doctors and nurses dealing with the pandemic than the neat solutions in our Grey’s Anatomy vision. We are seeing, living, experiencing a situation often simply alluded to and it will no doubt impact how we approach medicine.

  “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Audre Lorde


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Writer, feminist, and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, famously remarked, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” For me, the Coronavirus pandemic illustrated this perfectly.

What began as “Covid-19 in the time of …” gradually turned into “… in the time of Covid-19,” with the disease framing and dictating explorations into other areas. This phenomenon invited a healthcare lens into areas not publicly classified as a healthcare issue. Anything that transpired in the course of the pandemic mandated an obligatory health worker to answer, “how has Covid-19 affected …” which is now added to the list of essential questions. This broadcasted what was perhaps already apparent to those within the healthcare circle, that issues such as public housing and minimum wage have as much to do with health as the pandemic itself. One quick scroll through the medical community on twitter, referred to as “Med Twitter” will reveal political debate and discourse intertwined with every seemingly ‘medical discussion’, producing heated arguments comparable to any newsroom.

Often referred to as the “cause of the cause” in public health, social determinants and structural barriers existing in society, manifest within the hospital as well, mirroring the inequality outside. 

From the start of medical school, our education is divided into themes or modules, with public and community-based health occupying its own singular niche within it. When asked for the causes of a particular condition, we subconsciously direct and alter our thinking based on the title of the class. Living through Covid-19 provides us with a hint of the complex, multifaceted and often competing concerns of individuals and patients living with conditions that challenge this singular line of thought. It reminds us to view disease as more than just clinical presentations and recovery as something beyond the absence of these symptoms. Thus, it is paramount that we keep Lorde’s words in mind as we traverse our neatly segmented, siloed course, and ensure that our learning does not start and end within the four walls of the hospital. 

This year could not have been farther from expectations of the much awaited ‘university life’. But experiencing it has taught me to always be ready for the uncertainty that medicine may present, to view everything from symptoms to complications as starting points rather than endpoints. Most importantly, it has taught me to walk into every class, placement and clinic with an open mind, a critical mind, ready to meet people and listen to their stories.

Even amidst the confusion and chaos of 2020, we have gathered a cluster of experiences inside and outside the classroom that will stay with us throughout the rest of the journey, prepare us to be empathetic clinicians and hopefully make up for this year that we spent learning patient care from a skeleton in a cardigan.  

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