The challenges of studying medicine during the pandemic

Sairana’s third year of medicine, where students normally move into hospitals and medical settings, coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. She talks about the negative impact that had on her studies, and the strategies she used to manage that impact.

She also discusses feeling isolated and overwhelmed, and seeing firsthand the strain on other doctors and nurses. She explains how changing her routine, setting goals and reaching out to friends changed her mindset.

Sairana shares how the pandemic changed the third year of her medicine degree, and the impact it had on her studies and wellbeing.

Video transcript

Hey, I'm Sairana. I'm currently a Cardiff student, studying 3rd year of medicine. And I'm going to be talking to you a little bit today about my experiences of being a medical student during the pandemic. And what I've learned since the start of this period and the changes I have had to my academic experience, and dealing with the firsthand strain of the pandemic and my general feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed.

As I am sure any medical student is aware, moving up into 3rd year is a big deal, even under normal circumstances. And it's the first time you’re truly in the clinical world of medicine, going from spending full days in lecture theatres, to actually spending time on the ward and being in and amongst patients and doctors.

Unfortunately, the massive toll of the pandemic on our NHS, meant that this step up was not really made any easier. From our first day in the hospital, the wards were filled with Covid patients struggling for their lives, and doctors and nurses desperately trying to keep up with the workload. Unsurprisingly this meant that there was often not enough time or energy left to invest in students. And I have regularly felt as if I was forgotten, or alone on placement with no real purpose there.

This simply added to the strain when I came home, as I was very aware of the level of teaching that friends in the years above me had received, and the decreased amount of support from the medical school due to a lot of it being virtual meant that I constantly remember coming home being downcast or feeling a bit defeated.

One thing that did help me was talking to my senior medics about their placement experience, I listened to their different tips and tricks about how they got the most out of each placement block. I looked into different virtual teaching opportunities that are available to me, with so many different organizations being set up during lockdown solely to support medical students' learning, as they recognize the decreased amount of teaching due to Covid.

Another thing I found during my third year was that I often felt overwhelmed. At times, it was as if I was drowning in the workload, which never seemed to end. And nothing I did ever seemed enough. I realized, with time, that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. And I learned to accept that studying medicine is a lifelong process. And I was doing my best to do a little bit of work on most days, even if it was just half an hour. Over time that allowed me to stop placing as much pressure on myself and accepting the fact that I had unrealistic expectations of myself as just a third year medical student.

Being a medical student during the pandemic meant that I was seeing the burden of the pandemic firsthand when I was on placement. This was incredibly challenging. I remember on one occasion, I met a patient on the Friday for the first time. But by the time I was back on Monday, I was told they had passed away. That was hard to hear but I had only spoken to that patient once and the staff who knew the patient well, were the ones who had not had the time to grieve, even if they've needed it. It was in these moments that I felt that my presence there was a hindrance, and there was already enough pressure treating them patients, let alone having to take time out to teach me during the pandemic. Only making me feel guiltier and my sense of imposter syndrome stronger.

Another thing that I took a long time to acknowledge, yet was essential, was the fact that I was not alone in how I felt. I saw it in the hospitals. The virus had affected people everywhere, young and old alike. Many people I saw were just so happy to have someone to chat to, as they've been on their own for so long. With so many of the elderly having to shield, they didn't even have the liberty of seeing their friends and family, no different than me.

A final thing that had a large impact on my mental wellbeing was the seemingly endless lockdowns. That meant that I was left feeling alone as if I was isolated from the outside world. I felt as if there was no one I could turn to or ask for help when I was struggling, or feeling down after a particularly difficult day of placement. The environment which was created by the lockdown rules resulted in me starting to alienate myself from my friends, and even my housemates. It was easy to do with the varied placement hours and somewhat dodgy Wi Fi connection. I could no longer express my frustrations through team sports, or be distracted from my medical school worries by a night out with my friends. Even the regular church services that I had attended all through my life were put to a stop. Closing myself off from my friends was an unhealthy coping mechanism that I had developed. And it took its toll on my mental health. But thankfully I have since realized that the key for me was finding a new normal, one that fitted the new situation we are living through.

It had been almost an entire year since the initial lockdown. And to me it did not seem like the virus was going to leaving our lives anytime soon, I slowly realized that there was no point simply waiting for life to return to what it was before Corona. I'd been saying that for almost a year and had allowed that thought to put parts of my life on hold. Instead, I found I had a far better mindset, when I began trying to adapt to the new way of life, starting new restriction friendly routines, and creating different short term goals, ones which could actually be achieved, even in the midst of the pandemic.

I also realized that I had so many people who were in fact in the same boat that I was in. And this made me appreciate those that were trying to reach out to me so much more, whether that was via a phone call or a socially distanced walk. The more I started speaking to people, the more I realized that I had some control over how isolated I had to be. If I did not want to speak to friends, there are various other organizations, whether that be university based support, or services that were more external.

Looking back, there were and always will be people willing to listen and give me a much needed fresh perspective, which is sometimes needed for me to be able to move forwards. During the times where carrying on, much less progressing, seems impossible. And this is something which I have learned and will carry into my future.