Stanford University
School of Medicine
Stanford, CA

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This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.

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  • It’s early March.* I’m a third-year medical student furiously refreshing the scheduling website for the USMLE Step 1 exam.

COVID-19 has reached the shores of the United States, silently spreading in communities for months while we imagined ourselves immune to its threat.

Scores of nursing home residents in Seattle are dying, but I’m worried that my board exam with the potential to change the fate of my medical career will be canceled. I scroll down the list of cancellations: Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Milan, Seattle, Bellevue. I know the Bay Area is next.

I dedicated countless anxiety-inducing weeks studying for this exam and have the shamefully selfish thought – “Not this week. Just don’t lockdown this week.”

Little did I know that each day delayed meant thousands of lives that could have been saved.

I take my eight-hour test on a Wednesday. Five days later, I live-stream a press conference: Six Bay Area counties institute the nation’s first shelter-in-place order.

I feel relieved.

  • It’s April.*

I wake up every day, pick up my phone, and check the rate of new COVID infections. I repeat this obsessive ritual 15 times a day. I have the Johns Hopkins tracker on bookmark, and Chrome recognizes that I check more than I check Facebook. Cases continue to rise. I feel sad and lethargic, briefly wondering if I have COVID-induced depression. The DSM should really consider a new diagnosis this year. My parents and I unfailingly watch the morning and evening news like clockwork. Nearly 3000 people die every day. A slow-moving mass casualty event is unraveling before us.

My sister texts me – “They’re sending me to Elmhurst on Monday. Don’t tell mom.” She’s an anesthesiology resident in New York City.

It was poor timing to have just shown my parents a documentary of the public hospital “besieged” by COVID. My sister tells them two days later. We all worry.

My classmates start an effort to collect PPE and I join in – because it gives me something to do and I can’t stand doing nothing.

I feel paralyzed.

  • It’s May.*

I don’t know what my training will look like for the rest of the year. Maybe I will become proficient at being a virtual doctor. Our medical school, like many others, adapts into the Zoom University School of Medicine.

I feel lucky to be protected as a student, but in a year there will be no protections and I will somehow have a Dr. in front of my name.

I contemplate whether I need to wear pants during my Zoom Radiology sessions.

I feel lost.

  • It’s June.*

I have the opportunity to resume my clinical rotations early in the ICU.

My first day, a patient gasps, “I can’t breathe” and is intubated later that day.

A week before, George Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe,” and was slowly killed by a police officer cutting off his Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. I learn about these fundamental ABC’s of resuscitation to keep patients alive during a simulation exercise with a mannequin.

My team participates in a moment of silence at the hospital, kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. My knees sear against the hot sun-baked concrete and I have to adjust my position three times.

The next week, I rotate onto the eerily quiet hallway of COVID patients in the ICU, reminded that the negative pressure rooms are disproportionately filled with black and brown patients.

A Code Blue is called on the COVID patient I have been following, each morning peering through the glass window to glance at his vitals and the settings of his ventilator.

My resident scrawls recommendations from another physician onto a piece of paper and slaps it onto the glass door, knocking insistently to get the attention of the crowd of doctors and nurses draped in PPE inside.

“Talk here” – the nurse points at the crease of the door hinge – “it transmits more sound.” I file this new snippet of information in my brain, alongside the basics of ventilator settings and use of vasopressors. They stabilize the patient, but now he’s moved back two steps.

A couple of days before the end of my rotation, I call his wife with an update. “Please do everything for him. His kids are waiting for him,” she implores.

“Yes, we will absolutely do everything,” I respond, hopeful that he will recover.
But after only a couple of weeks in the ICU, I realize that sometimes even everything isn’t enough.

I feel conflicted.

  • It’s July.* I guess I’m a fourth-year medical student now.
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Arifeen Rahman is a fourth-year medical student at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She is interested in storytelling in all of its forms, health policy, and the medical humanities.