The Future Front Line: Pre-health Students React to The Coronavirus Pandemic

by Caris White | 4/29/20 2:25am

If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that when duty calls, medical professionals answer. From a whistleblower physician in Wuhan to front-line hospital staff in New York City, doctors, nurses and countless other medical workers have taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the daughter of a primary care physician and a pre-med student myself, I’ve watched this crisis play out with a mix of admiration and distress. I’m continually inspired by the thousands of medical workers who put their lives at risk to care for sick patients. But I also wonder every day if this is the day that my mom comes home with the coronavirus. And I know that, if and when something like this pandemic happens again, it could be me on the front line. 

Furthermore, the pandemic has more than just emotionally impacted many pre-health students — it has resulted in canceled MCATs, a switch to online learning and D-Plan changes on top of the challenging pre-health course load. This week, I heard from several students about why they chose pre-health, how they are navigating these changes and where they’re finding inspiration right now. 

Meredith Srour ’20 shared how her experiences working as an emergency medical technician in Dartmouth’s emergency medical services influenced her desire to enter the medical field. 

“[Freshman year], I got involved with EMS on campus, and that introduced me to patient care and I really loved it,” Srour said. 

For others, it was academic interest that drew them to pre-health: Sam Reynolds ’23 went the pre-health route because of his love for biology. 

Sarah Abramowitz ’20, meanwhile, chose pre-health because she views it as a combination of the intellectual and practical. 

“I had a couple of experiences with exposure to medicine where things clicked, and it felt like the intersection of my interests,” Abramowitz said. 

Although Abramowitz and Srour both managed to take the MCAT two days before testing shut down in March, the pandemic will still impact the medical school application process — deadlines have been moved, testing requirements have been altered and in-person interviews remain up in the air. Despite the challenges that the coronavirus poses to pre-health students, seeing the courage of health care workers has also been a source of inspiration. 

“I just have a lot of admiration for the people who are working very hard on the front lines,” Reynolds said. “In California, they’re looking to recruit a bunch of health care workers to form a reserve, and I actually applied to work as an EMT for this program.”

Srour feels similarly.

“[As a medical professional], you are really making a difference in times like these, and [they] are the ones getting us through this. In that sense, it has been pretty inspirational and positive for me; it’s gotten me excited to be on the front lines,” Srour said. 

Srour acknowledged that while medical professionals have a big impact during a public health crisis, they also face high risk. 

“It is a little bit scary at the same time, but the benefit of helping someone towards health outweighs the risk,” Srour said.

Abramowitz also reflected on the dangers facing medical workers. 

“I think that one thing that has been brought up by this is what it means to work in health care and whether that should mean putting yourself at risk,” Abramowitz said. “It also just goes to show that science and medicine is changing. Every new problem comes with more nuance and more to unpack.”

Among everyone I talked to, there was a general sense that as someone in the medical field, serving during times of crisis is just what you do. 

“I think if you’re going into the medical profession, something like this obviously doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s part of the job,” Reynolds said. 

The magnitude of this pandemic is unprecedented in recent memory, and Abramowitz, a history major, believes that it is likely to affect the medical field for years to come. 

“I’m sure that this will find its way into everything from history textbooks to medical school curriculum,” Abramowitz said. 

Biology professor Lee Witters, founder of Dartmouth’s pre-health professions program, believes that this crisis suggests a need for change within our society. 

“This should be a major wake-up call — and I understand all of the major political ramifications of that,” Witters said. “This should really be telling us about who we are as a people and who we want our country to be. We need to respect science. Science isn’t always perfect, but science is always self-correcting.”

However, Witters remains positive about the potential for change. 

“I’m actually optimistic about this — it’s an incredible opportunity to redefine who we are and who we care about as a country,” Witters said. “I think we will get through this pandemic, but there are more pandemics out there.”

Whether the world uses this moment to create positive change is yet to be seen, but it’s clear that this crisis will have a lasting impact on those seeking to enter the medical field. 

“I think overall, this is going to be a time of change …  [F]or prospective [medical] students, this really could change a lot of people’s plans,” Srour said. “Schools are really going to have to work through this, and it’s going to be a big learning curve.”

Witters said that he believes this crisis will have a lasting effect on the next generation of health professionals. 

“There are, frankly, some people who are interested in medicine who would not be willing to make [front line] kinds of commitments,” Witters noted. “I hope that this will change, in some ways, the attitudes of aspiring pre-medicine students.”

For Witters, medicine extends beyond individual concerns, as does the scope of this pandemic.

“I wish that people would think about medicine as a higher calling — it’s not just about them, but about what they are doing for others,” Witters said. “We will get past this. But the question is how will we use it to make a better world, and I think a lot of conversation has to go on about that.”