What's it like to be a junior doctor graduating into a global health pandemic?

  • Understandably, graduating as a junior doctor amid a global health pandemic could be nothing short of nerve-wracking and confusing.

    However, it hasn’t phased 26-year-old Patrick Lynch too much, who formally made his ‘Medical Sponsio Academica Oath’ this time last week after studying Medicine for five years at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

    Patrick told Sync NI: “I would never get proud or anything, but I’ve never had a sense of duty before and this has really given me that now. It’s a nice feeling to think that you have the skills to help out when the country is in such a crisis.”

    Patrick’s graduation ceremony was due to happen on 8 July but due to social distancing restrictions has been postponed.

    Nonetheless, he and his housemates (who are also final year medical students) manufactured their own graduation gown and had their photos taken in front of the famous QUB Lanyon gate, which gained a lot of attraction on social media.

    Patrick said: “We had one gown between us. I made it from an old bedsheet, and I cut a blue t-shirt into the strip that’s supposed to go over your chest. My friend Lucy made graduation caps out of cereal boxes.

    “QUB has promised us a graduation later but to be honest, trying to get a day when most junior doctors are free? It’s a nice thought but I don’t know if it will happen.

    “They got Hillary Clinton [now QUB’s Vice Chancellor] to give us a video message saying how proud she was of us though, which was amazing. Had we had the graduation in person we expected she might have been there to hand out the degrees.”

    His official foundation programme as a junior doctor will begin in August, where he will change medical specialities every four months for two years to gain experience in all fields and decide what he wants to focus on full-time.

    For now, he has applied for a new interim role that was created out of the COVID-19 crisis but is not necessarily as in demand as once thought:

    “The interim role is all over the UK and is voluntary. It runs from May through to July, where we have some of the roles of a junior doctor but it’s just to assist the junior doctors that are there already, to free them up so they can do the job they’ve been doing for a year. We [will] mostly do administrative things to get experience and get paid for it. 

    “You can quit at any time and it won’t affect your further education or foundation programme. The health trusts were very clear they didn’t want to push students into this.

    “Nobody has really started it in Northern Ireland yet, they’ve started in England and it’s working really well. Because it’s not as massive a peak as they thought it would be, they’re bringing us in in waves, and because we’re the most junior doctors we require a lot of supervision, so they’re trying to assess how safely they can supervise us as well.

    "We know we’re not going to be on the corona wards and we were never going to be allowed in the Nightingale hospital, but we think there’s going to be a massive push to make up all the lost surgeries so we’ll be helping out with discharge letters and getting patients clerked in etc.”

    Indeed, Belfast City Hospital’s emergency Nightingale facility which was set up considering the coronavirus pandemic is now to be wound down due to low admissions, The Irish News reported earlier today.

    Health minister Robin Swann and Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte McArdle visited Northern Ireland's Nightingale hospital on 7 April when it opened.

    For Patrick none of this seems to have deterred his energy and love for Medicine, despite the hurdles he had to jump to study his degree in the first place.

    He continued: “I’ve wanted to do Medicine since I was in P.6, I’ve never not wanted to do it… but I didn’t get the A-levels required so I did a degree in Biochemistry instead.”

    He assured that his initial degree put him in good stead mentally and intellectually though:

    “I think about 30% of our year had previous undergraduate degrees. It comes with the competitiveness of Medicine – you always want to beef out your CV.

    “The practice of university really helped me with going about researching and writing papers, and the overall maturity that comes with it. I was definitely a different person going into Medicine at 21 than I was going into Biochemistry at 18.”

    But struggles don’t just come in the shape of grade boundaries and the length of time it actually takes to complete a degree in Medicine (or preceding courses in Patrick’s case). There’s also financial burdens:

     “I didn’t get a student loan for Medicine because it was my second degree so I’ve been paying for it myself for five years. People in my position have come over from England and had to pay £9,000 up front.

    “It was logistical for me to go to Queen’s, to stay home and save money, and the university has been so good throughout all of this. We have a Head of Medicine called Professor Neil Kennedy and he’s working night and day – he’s a paediatrician on top of this and he’s getting 100 e-mails a day from all of us.”

    RELATED: QUB to help conduct rapid COVID-19 testing trial

    No one in our generation has ever had to go through a global health pandemic before – not in the same format since the Spanish flu in 1918. I asked Patrick about how he, his fellow students and his lecturers dealt with the concept of this as it was unfolding:

    “It all started round December/January and we were off and not seeing anyone because we were going through our finals. Then we started on a kind of apprenticeship in March which was cut short because they weren’t allowed to keep students on the wards.

    “The doctors knew it was coming but never knew how hard it was going to hit or how services were going to change. It was a waiting game.

    “It’s hard to imagine because we’re just getting whatever the public gets and because everything’s changing so quickly there’s not a lot of information. The hospital trusts and university doesn’t want to tell us anything until they’re absolutely sure so we’re sat at home like sitting ducks, waiting to go.

    “I am quite nervous but we were actually talking the other day about the psychological impact on medical students going into a pandemic and a lot of us are in our early twenties. It’s hard to appreciate your own mortality.

    "The media keeps talking about the risks to healthcare workers but it’s hard to kind of appreciate that when you are young and fit, and the only thing we would be concerned about is bringing it home to others in the house rather than ourselves.

    “It [death] is impossible to comprehend. A very small fraction of us have ever been sick or even in hospital. My mum would be very worried but it just hasn’t registered to me.

    “QUB has been teaching us resilience throughout the course because they’re all doctors themselves and even without a pandemic, we’re still going to have to face the same issues of death, hard decisions and effects on family members so they’ve built us up and made us very strong.

    Patrick and his housemates have also created their own replica mini series of Channel 4's hit show, 'Come Dine with Me' to keep busy and entertain others online

    “A lot of doctors are now struggling because lots of difficult conversations are having to be made over the phone with family members because they’re not allowed in hospitals to see their relatives. I think the lack of face-to-face contact is upsetting a lot of people."

    Regardless of the negative news and invariable uncertainty blanketing the world currently, it is positive to see junior doctors remaining passionate and progressive about their futures in Medicine.

    Patrick concluded: “Someone called my Dr Lynch recently and I absolutely hated it! I will always just be Patrick, one of the doctors.”

    RELATED: Meet the NI students making the most of lockdown learning

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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