'They’ve risen to the challenge': U of T medical grads adapted to the unknown during COVID-19

Two doctors don PPE as they walk down a hospital corridor

Staff don protective gear at Humber River Hospital. When clinical rotations resumed in July 2020, U of T medical students discovered a landscape transformed by COVID-19 safety protocols (photo by Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images)

From contact tracing to providing babysitting services for health-care workers, the 254 medical students graduating this spring from the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine have accumulated plenty of new experiences over the past year.

As pandemic safety protocols put the class of 2021 on temporary hiatus from clerkship rotation last spring, MD students stepped up to volunteer with initiatives to support health care systems and the community. Students organized PPE collection drives, worked crisis support telephone services, filled hospital screening and public health contact tracing roles and pitched in to offer childcare and grocery delivery services to frontline health-care workers.

Then, when clinical rotations resumed in July, students discovered a medical landscape transformed by COVID-19 safety protocols, unfamiliar routines for health care teams and the need to develop new relationships with patients and family members.

Prem ​​​​​Nichani Prem ​​​​​Nichani

“You might find yourself supporting a scared breast cancer patient who can’t have her mother with her,” says Ward Al-far, who is co-president of the graduating class. “That adds a lot more emotional and social responsibility to caring for people, but the difference it makes for the patient is huge."

He describes the experience as “intense,” but says it solidified the communication and patient advocacy skills he will carry into his future practice.

As health care adapted to the changing demands of COVID-19, the new protocols also gave student learners an unusual view of the specialities they might be considering. “This is a formative period,” says Al-far of the truncated clerkship placements that give MD students a chance to experience different medical disciplines before deciding on their speciality.

The circumstances also shifted how student learners prepared for residency placements. Travel restrictions meant the class of 2021 had to find new ways to explore the cities and institutions where they hoped to land residency placements.

Ward Al-far Ward Al-far

“This is where we will spend the next five years and maybe set up our practices and our lives,” says Prem Nichani, who also serves as a class co-president.

Despite the challenges, Marcus Law, director of the MD foundations program, says the past year gave the 2021 cohort a unique opportunity to put their pre-clerkship training into practice.

“They observed how physicians learn and manage uncertainties and ambiguities,” says Law, an associate professor of family medicine. “They also deepened their understanding of how to adapt to the unknown with new knowledge and to how to apply a health equity lens to advocate for their patients with COVID.”

“This class has developed life skills that will help them manage the next crisis. They’ve risen to the challenge and will be ready to tackle what comes next.”

Through it all, the class of 2021 leaned on each other, met safely outdoors when in-person visits were permitted and moved online when they were not. There were virtual town halls with faculty to keep students informed of changes and online counseling sessions offered through the Office of Health Professions Student Affairs.

Class co-presidents Al-far and Nichani also helped the class safely mark milestones and make new memories together. They recently hosted the first-ever virtual match party to celebrate residency matches and are preparing for an online convocation event on June 15.

With classes behind them, many in the 2021 cohort of medical students are preparing for licensing exams and making relocation plans to begin their residency placements on July 1.

This period also typically offers opportunities for travel and rest – a break Nichani notes is especially needed after the intense pressures of the past year.

Al-far and Nichani say their classmates showed extraordinary determination and resiliency over the past year.

“Making it through these four years is a challenge itself, but, with the pandemic, it’s a quite an accomplishment,” says Al-far, who will start residency in anesthesiology at McMaster University in July.

Nichani, who will remain in Toronto for his residency in ophthalmology, agrees. “Despite how hard this experience has been, it made our class stronger together and as individuals,” he says. “We’ve been through a heck of a lot.”

Patricia Houston, vice dean, medical education, lauded the class for their accomplishments and contributions.

“In addition to offering my congratulations to the class of 2T1 on the successful completion of the MD program, I also want to thank our newest graduates,” says Houston.

“Over the last year in particular, the class of 2T1 has stepped up to help in the clinical environment, assisted in caring safely for COVID patients and were a help to students in the other years of the program. It’s been a privilege to work with each of these students and I wish them the best as they embark upon the next chapter in their lifelong education journey.”

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