Anthony Javed Machikan
As I sit here on this cardiology ward, thinking of the best way to start this piece, waiting for my beeper to order me back to work, I realise something. After everything that has happened, this is the first time I’ve sat down to reflect on how drastically life has changed for me and for all of us.
“Your final medical exams will be in one week.” I can still remember sitting at the back of the lecture hall and hearing Professor Hill, the head of medicine, say those words. The majority of us just laughed, of course. This had to be a joke. My real exams were supposed to be in two months’ time.
However, when Professor Hill’s facial expression didn’t change, we quickly realised that our lives as students were about to change. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) gave us the choice: do your long case exam sometime within the next week or wait until Covid-19 settles down, whenever that may be, and write it then.
Quite frankly, in that moment I was angry. I may not be the smartest student but I am dedicated and I had now lost two months of study time. I was furious at the university for making me make this decision. I wasn’t the only one, of course; there was a sea of emotions: from sorrow and tears to an almost surreal acceptance of what was to come. It was only much later that we realised how much foresight and courage on behalf of RCSI it had taken to make this call.
We were given that evening to decide what to do. The next day, we had to log on to our online portals and scramble to pick one of seven days to do our exam. Of course, we all wanted the Friday (the seventh day) so that we could cram in the extra bit of study. When 9am came around, I chose Friday. Booked. Thursday, booked. Wednesday, booked. You can see where this is going. I clicked Saturday and almost hoped it was fully booked but, alas, the most important exam of my student life was to be in three days.
I had a meeting with the head of student academic affairs (as I was the Students’ Union president) to discuss how best to support the final-year medical students during this time. She provided me with encouragement, and after that meeting, I raced to the nearest coffee shop, ready to indulge in 72 hours of coffee-infused intimacy with my surgery books.
The fact that the university agreed to everything that we asked for to aid in our studying made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I had an army of dedicated, hard-working people urging me forward.
Those 72 hours were hell. The lack of sleep and constant studying drained me, but I was replenished by the constant positive, and sometimes cheesy, emails from my lecturers, tutors, welfare officers and staff.
Saturday came and it was my turn to be examined. I began taking the patient’s history and I began remembering everything that my lecturers had taught us; it was as if I could hear them in my head. Ask this, don’t forget that…
Both examiners had tricky questions to grill me on for the next 10 minutes. In the end I walked out of the room feeling very pleased with the general outcome of the exam.
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The next three weeks went by faster than those three study days. Life had suddenly moved into the fast lane and all of the experiences that we all looked forward to seemed to be compressed into an assortment of Zoom calls and socially distanced goodbyes.
At this point, it was clear to see that Professor Hill and the rest of the RCSI team had made a wise, and brave, decision. The rest of the Irish medical schools began following suit, bringing their final exams forward by months. There was a sense of pride among the RCSI students, knowing that it was our university that led the charge, the ones who did what was needed to ensure that the next generation of doctors was armed and ready for the attack of Covid-19.
RCSI then recommended that the international students who needed to return to their home countries should do so swiftly. Best friends who had stood by each other for five years were suddenly forced to say goodbye in a matter of hours. The unceremonious separations devastated the close-knit family that is the Class of 2020.
Worse yet, our graduation, those few steps across the stage cementing the change from medical student to front-line doctor, was indefinitely postponed. Within a matter of days, many of my classmates had left the country, unsure of what lay ahead. Many of us choose to stay in Ireland with the hopes of working as junior doctors alongside the thousands of others in the Irish health service.
The days were filled with solitude but we did find solace in the different initiatives that the RCSI had put into place. Many of us engaged in the live sessions from the gym staff or gave virtual tutorship to students in younger years. Thankfully, the RCSI made sure that there was always something to do and, more importantly, someone to talk to.
Looking back now, being away from my family, being catapulted into finals, saying goodbye to my best friends were enough to impact mental health. Only now I realise what it meant to have so many people supporting me.
Graduation day came and we got an inspiring video montage of all the academics and staff who mentored us along our long journeys. And with our loved ones glued to their laptop screens and our mentors urging us on, we all became doctors, eager to march forward and do our part.
When the Irish match was released, we were all scattered to hospitals around the country. We were welcomed to our various hospitals with open arms, many of the staff happy to show us the ropes and ease our transition as medics. The hospitals were different from what I remembered as a medical student. Only a handful of months had passed but I felt as though I was in a new system entirely; PPE usage was drilled into our brains and social-distancing guidelines echoed in the air.
I have learned a great deal about medicine in this short time, but more so about life. Being a healthcare worker in the midst of a pandemic is hard work but I’m grateful to my family and my university for preparing me for what has gone on and for that which is to come.