On the evening of March 24, I got the email. When the bolded letters “We ask for your help” flashed across my screen, I knew exactly what was being asked of me: to graduate early and join the fight against COVID-19.
For the 120 fourth-year medical students in my class at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the arrival of that email was always more a question of when than if. Similar moves had already been made in Italy as well as the United Kingdom, where the surge in patients with COVID-19 has devastated hospitals and left healthcare workers dead or drained. The New York hospitals where I’ve trained, places I have grown to love over the past 4 years, are now experiencing similar horrors. Residents and attending doctors – mentors and teachers – are burned out and exhausted. They need help.
Like most medical students, I chose to pursue medicine out of a desire to help. On both my medical school and residency applications, I spoke about my resolve to bear witness to and provide support to those suffering. Yet, being recruited to the front lines of a global pandemic felt deeply unsettling. Is this how I want to finally enter the world of medicine? The scope of what is actually being asked of me was immense.
Given the onslaught of bad news coming in on every device I had cozied up to during my social distancing, how could I want to do this? I’ve seen the death toll climb in Italy, with dozens of doctors dead. I’ve seen the photos of faces marred by masks worn for 12-16 hours at a time. I’ve been repeatedly reminded that we are just behind Italy. Things are certainly going to get worse.
It sounds selfish and petty, but I feel like COVID-19 has already robbed me of so much. Yet that was my first thought when I received the email. The end of fourth year in medical school is supposed to be a joyous, celebratory time. We have worked years for this moment. So many of us have fought burnout to reach this time, a brief moment of rest between being a medical student and becoming a full-fledged physician.
I matched into residency just 4 days before being asked to join the front lines of the pandemic. I found out my match results without the usual fanfare, sitting on a bench in Madison Square Park, FaceTiming my dad and safely social-distanced from my mom. They both cried tears of joy. Like so many people around the world right now, I couldn’t even embrace my parents. Would they want me to volunteer?
I reached out to my classmates. I thought that some of them would certainly share my worries. I thought they also had to be carrying this uncomfortable kind of grief, a heavy and acidic feeling of dreams collapsing into a moral duty. I received a unanimous reply: “We are needed. It’s our time to step up.” No matter how many “what ifs” I voiced, they wouldn’t crack or waver. Still, even if they never admitted it to me, I wondered whether they privately shared some of my concerns and fears.
Everyone knows information is shared instantly in our Twitter-centric world, but I was still shocked and unprepared for how quickly I was at the center of a major news story. Within an hour of that email, I was contacted by an old acquaintance from elementary school, now a journalist. He had found me through Facebook and asked, “Will you be one of the NYU students graduating early? Would love to get a comment.” Another friend texted me a photo of the leaked email, quipping, “Are you going to save us from the pandemic, Dr. Gabe?!” “It’s not a small decision!” I snapped back.
I went through something like the seven stages of grief in rapid succession. I found that with each excuse I made why I shouldn’t volunteer, I somehow became increasingly more anxious. To my surprise, when I decided I would join 50 of my peers at NYU, graduate early, and volunteer, my mind settled. The more I thought about it, the more I was overtaken by the selfless beauty of the profession I’m entering. This is what it means to be a doctor. I recalled a key part of the Hippocratic Oath: “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.”
I am going to fulfill my special obligations.
The fear is still there. I’m scared of COVID. I’m scared to infect others. I’m scared of winding up paralyzed and intubated. But I have also realized that all we have is each other. Healthcare workers supporting healthcare workers. New Yorkers supporting New Yorkers. Citizens of the world supporting citizens of the world. This is my time to be there for others, unwaveringly.
Logistical details continue to roll in, although they feel trivial in relation to the decision I have already made. The paperwork tells me that I will be onboarded to NYU’s internal medicine residency program. I will be compensated and protected under a similar contract to what current NYU residents sign. I have been promised that I will remain insured until I start my official residency program in July. My student loans won’t begin accruing interest until my normally planned graduation date. I am told that I will have personal protective equipment in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
Questions still linger. Is it safe for me and my newly minted physician peers to continue living with our spouses, children, and friends? How long will I need to quarantine after my contract ends? Will there be a virtual graduation ceremony for my parents and loved ones to enjoy? In these challenging times, each day gives me a little more clarity about what exactly I am signing up for, but there are still so many uncertainties.
Am I naive to say that I do feel prepared? Or at least as prepared as anyone can be. With respect to my training, I have completed the requirements to graduate, which is why I am being permitted to graduate early in the first place. Our faculty points to our professionalism as the most promising indicator of our preparedness. They are heartened that we have embraced this truest test: our duty to others.
There is an eerie calm to New York City that contradicts what is shown on the news. With stores closed and streets quiet, it almost feels like Christmas morning here. Yet, inside the hospital, a fire rages. All the metaphors being used right now speak about violence, devastation, and immeasurable human suffering. “A war is being fought.” Or so I have heard. I guess I am about to find out.
Gabriel Redel-Traub is a fourth-year medical student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He will be starting residency in internal medicine at Columbia Presbyterian this summer. He is the former editor-in-chief of Dartmouth College’s Mouth Magazine, an editor of NYU’s LitMed Database, and has published most recently in the Hasting’s Center Magazine. Gabriel Redel-Traub has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
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