Just a few weeks ago, all 190 of my classmates and I joined together for our first epidemiology lecture as first year medical students at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. We were just returning from spring break and I could still vividly recall the fear in my Uber driver’s voice as he dropped me off at the Tampa International Airport, stating, “the two most recent cases of coronavirus were people traveling through Tampa.” I quickly tried to block his comment, hoping that this would all blow over.
I boarded my flight with little apprehension but I was very nervous to eat on the plane and I dared not cough. I sat in the lecture hall with the same precaution and I could tell my classmates were equally convinced. Ironically, the coronavirus was included in our lecture. We still had no clue that we were about to experience the topics in our lecture happening in real time.
In no time, news outlets would be swarmed with calculations of incidence and prevalence rates and worst of all, coronavirus fatality rates. Two days after we resumed classes, we abruptly learned that we would conduct all our class sessions online. Our emails began flooding with amendments to our curriculum and details on the increasing incidence of COVID-19 cases around the country. With such a large population of international students and all of us recently returning from our respective spring break excursions, we knew that the virus would hit our state and campus in no time.
Within a few days, we saw new cases in Michigan. As first year medical students, we realized the advanced knowledge we held in regard to what was happening to the country. Despite our few lectures in epidemiology, our knowledge and skills spilled beyond the disease of the population. We all had basic clinical skills and almost a full year’s worth of medical knowledge. My classmates and I quickly began to find ways to contribute by organizing babysitting services for physicians and sharing resources with each other.
As I watched the growing measures to fight this pandemic like canceling professional sports and travel bans, all leading up to extreme social distancing, I had many mixed feelings. It hit hard that I was so limited in my ability to help the public despite the fact that I have dedicated myself to a career of helping the sick. Physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals around the world are at the front line of this pandemic and I was sitting in my room watching it all through the news, social media and emails. I was rushed with that feeling of not being far along and eager to be involved. There is endless mention about the most vulnerable populations being the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. I recognize that I may be of great value in fighting the coronavirus and that I am potentially a part of our healthiest population as a 27-year-old woman with no major health concerns.
In addition, I can’t help but see myself as somewhat advantaged against some of the obstacles of this pandemic. As a medical student, I am secure in the upcoming months as long as classes are in session and financial aid is awarded. I have no immediate worry besides staying in doors and avoiding the infection. I could imagine that if this had happened only one year earlier I would be facing similar socio-economic difficulties as many other Americans. This time last year I had just begun working as a substitute teacher, a position that is currently on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. I was overcoming being homeless and “couch surfing” until I had enough for a security deposit. I had sacrificed many opportunities to work in order to study and pass the medical college admission test and get into medical school.
As a foster youth with limited support, I knew that I had been playing with fire, but it was all worth my dream of one day becoming a physician. I successfully reached my goal and began my medical education in August of 2019. When I learned that physical classes were canceled and students were advised to go home, I thought about foster youth on campus who did not have a home to go to. I could recall myself as an undergrad, requesting special permission to stay in the dorms or finding friends and acquaintances to stay with during breaks. My empathy for the conglomerate of dilemmas the coronavirus is contributing to makes me even more eager to be of assistance to the public. I can’t help but feel like I should be on the front lines with the active healthcare team, fighting this pandemic.
The good news is there are endless opportunities developing every day for medical students to get involved. The students at my college have been called to volunteer in various capacities with places like the Department of Health and Human Services, the local health department and public schools doing various tasks including developing content to educate the public on COVID-19. Surprisingly, the college even permitted students to accept a unique job position for medical students to work in the hospitals as a nurse technician. I recently applied for this position and other volunteer opportunities. I am looking forward to making it to the front lines to help my community as we fight alongside the entire globe in this pandemic.
Michelle Walls is currently a first-year medical student at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. At 9 years old, Walls and her three younger siblings were placed in the foster care system. Initially in kinship care with an aunt, Walls and her sister were split up from their brothers and placed into foster homes. She was adopted at 13 years old and stayed with her new family until she aged out at 18. While her adoption helped her to live a normal life without trauma, the assumption of a successful adoption was not accurate. When she left for college, Walls’ adoptive parents ended their relationship with her and banned her from visiting her sister still under their care. Due to her adoption status, Walls struggled to receive traditional support. Walls went to Michigan State University and is an alumnus of Michigan State University’s FAME – Fostering Academics and Mentoring Excellence – program, which supports foster youth alumni in pursuing their college goals.