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Caring, Character & Calling: Resident Teachers During COVID-19

April 26, 2021

Did you ever have a teacher who changed your course or your life? Someone whose habits, actions, insights and integrity made you want to follow in their footsteps? Dell Medical School students share personal stories of profound influencers in this blog series.

All members of the Dell Medical School community are welcome to submit stories of teachers or mentors whose character moved them and made a difference in their development. This story is shared by Natalie Weston, student at Dell Med.

“I was saying her lungs sounds like a typical pneumonia patient, but then I realized you probably haven’t had the chance to listen to non-healthy lungs yet."

I had asked the resident to repeat herself at least three times already and finally I was able to understand her after she removed her face shield. It was the second day of my internal medicine rotation and this resident had offered to come in early and help me rehearse my presentation before rounds. At this point in July 2020, medical students were not allowed to enter the rooms of COVID-positive patients. So, on top of her own clinical duties, she was responsible for examining all of the patients I was assigned to follow. We walked together around the floor, and in between her donning and doffing PPE as she entered and exited patient rooms, she was doing her best to describe the physical exam findings I could not appreciate firsthand.

The transition from medical student to resident has been described to me as overwhelming. One day you are prioritized as the learner and a few short weeks later you are expected to be the teacher. Even after the stresses of moving across the country and navigating a new EHR dissipate, your responsibilities as a clinician and educator only grow. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic these expectations of medical residents have been exponentially increased. Yet, the consideration of residents for the well-being of learners has not wavered. While the resident mentioned previously was dealing with an increased patient load, the personal health risks of exposure and months of social isolation to protect her patients from the outside world and the outside world from her patients, she still was looking for ways to ensure my educational experience went on uninterrupted.

This also was not an isolated incident. In every specialty I have rotated through over the past six months, I have been the recipient of incredible grace and kindness from the residents I have been fortunate enough to work with. I like to believe that this is a result of an ongoing culture-shift in medical education that began in a pre-pandemic world, but I have to wonder if it also acts as a survival mechanism. So many residents have made a point to remind me that “it’s not always like this” and that they do not want the state of the world to “scare [me] away” from medicine altogether. While I know these sentiments are sincere, I think they are also saying them to themselves. In medicine it is common to focus on your next milestone when facing day-to-day struggles. You tell yourself that you just need to get to the end of medical school, residency, fellowship or whatever your current goal is and everything will be okay. I truly believe that in facing the pandemic, a problem that has no definite end in sight, these residents have chosen to focus their energy on finding ways to help their students, their patients and each other through.

As I rotate through each clerkship and take the time to consider what type of physician I want to be, I can only aspire to one day show the strength, resilience, and compassion I have watched these residents exhibit. From the upper-level who stayed late after a 14-hour day to make sure I was okay after my first patient death, to the intern who assigned me only COVID-negative patients in the week before Thanksgiving so I would not have to worry about an exposure before my days off, I have nothing but genuine gratitude for all of you. It is no secret that residents are overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. However, I hope that you all know your students see the extra efforts you are making and the extra weights you are carrying and we will all be better clinicians because we got to learn from your example.

The Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine (KNN) is a national network of seven medical schools dedicated to advance caring and character in medicine with the goal of promoting human flourishing. Guided by the principles of caring and character, the KNN provides a framework for training physicians, strengthening joy in medicine and improving health to promote human flourishing within, across and beyond the medical profession to positively impact individuals and communities in our society.

This initiative was made possible through support from the Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine through an investment from the Kern Family Trust and Kern Family Foundation.