Its been a tough month to be a student. After the long, long drag of summer, broken up only by zoom quizzes and anxiety about the state of the world, the return to education was more highly anticipated than ever before, even if only for the chance to see a different view from a window.
Medical students launched into work
But the last couple of weeks have seen university after university place thousands of students into self-isolation. From Glasgow to Manchester to Cardiff, local lockdowns and outbreaks in halls have led to students being stuck in their cramped rooms, unable to make friends or even look at a pub — while paying several thousands of pounds for the privilege. Having taken part in schemes such as Eat Out to Help Out only to be demonised as the key drivers of the second wave, and then paid rent only to be told courses will be held online, the more cynical among us are beginning to feel that the government sees us as little more than a piggy bank to be discarded when emptied.
Amidst the clamour and uncertainty, something else has shifted. For thousands of students, their summer saw them catapulted into the world of work months, or even years sooner than they had expected as they joined the fight against Covid-19. Final year medical students were granted early graduation and were able to join the NHS workforce, and following the ‘Statement of Expectation’ issued by the Medical Schools Council in March, many younger students found employment or volunteering opportunities in a vast range of roles, launching their NHS careers under the most dramatic of circumstances.
Students such as Isabelle Dudley, a fourth year medicine student at Birmingham University who spent three months as a medical student support worker on the geriatrics unit at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth’s hospital. For sixteen weeks, she assisted with ward rounds and helped junior doctors with both clinical and administrative jobs.
A ‘scary’ reality
‘As a medical student you get shifted around a lot to learn about different specialities so it was the first time I felt like I could settle in’, says Isabelle. ‘I learnt a lot about the job I hope to do in a couple of years — more than medical school has taught me about the practicalities of being a junior doctor’.
For Isabelle, being able to provide an extra pair of hands during a period of enormous strain for the NHS was one of the best things about her time on the ward. ‘[Working] allowed me to make sure that patients’ relatives were contacted regularly and ensure than menial tasks were carried out to ensure the best patient care’.
Her sentiments were echoed by another fourth year medic. Daisy Johnston, who is studying at Glasgow University, said that ‘[work] helped me to feel like I was helping out’. As a GP receptionist, Daisy spent the first eight weeks of lockdown advising patients over the phone and intercom, checking in on older patients, answering queries about prescriptions, shielding — the shielding letters in her area were delayed — and guiding the few patients attending the surgery to the consultancy rooms.
‘[Work] gave me structure to my days, helped me feel productive and stopped me getting too fed up being stuck at home’, she said. But while both medical students were rightly proud of their work during the pandemic, it was not without its challenges.
‘It was scary, especially at first’, Isabel said. ‘A lot of the patients coming in had Covid-19 and were seriously unwell which was emotionally tough to witness’. As well as Covid-19 patients, both Isabel and Daisy were dealing with other patients, many of whom struggled to access the care they required as NHS resources were redirected in order to deal with the pandemic.
‘Hospital services were significantly reduced’, said Daisy. ‘It was frustrating hearing from disappointed patients who felt some of their care issues had been forgotten about’. According to the Nuffield Trust, 48 per cent of people who require treatment are now waiting longer than the 18-week limit, the worst rate since records began.
While both Isabelle and Daisy had worked in the NHS in some capacity prior to the pandemic, for Emma Ferris, her first few shifts as a Health Care Assistant (HCA) occurred right in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. With one year left of her BTEC Health and Social Care Health studies, Emma was only able to start her work at Macclesfield hospital once she had turned 17 in May.
‘I’ve never really worked when there hasn’t been a pandemic, so I can’t really compare it. But it is odd sometimes’, she said. Several of Emma’s patients lip-read, and the masks have limited their ability to communicate, while those with dementia can struggle to understand why staff are in PPE or why they have to be tested before they are discharged. In the face of such an alien and difficult hospital experience, some patients can become aggressive — an intimidating experience for a 17-year-old.
One of the toughest parts of Emma’s job is preparing bodies for the mortuary, which she had to do for the first time on only her second shift. ‘When patients are end-of-life, you almost have to be prepared for it to happen. It is hard, and the first time I did it I was upset’. But despite these difficulties, and her youth, Emma takes huge pride in her work. ‘I know it sounds odd, but I do like washing patients, because you can keep them as dignified as can be, and also get to know them’. In the face of illness and chaos, the routine Emma was able to provide her patients was a welcome relief for many.
For all the students who rolled up their sleeves and volunteered during the pandemic, their urge to help overrode the fears and anxieties all of us have felt over the last few months.
‘I feel like we made a difference’, Isabelle concluded. In the face of a global crisis, when the best and worst of humanity has been revealed, making a difference has at times seemed impossible. But that is exactly what Isabelle, Daisy, Emma and thousands of other students like them have done. Which is why it feels personal that in return, all that has been offered is blame, debt and threats of Christmas away from family. This should be a moment of sober reflection for all of us.