First year, with a difference

by Craig Heath

A medical student had to jump in at the deep end when COVID-19 hit, learning valuable experience for his career ahead

Location: Wales
Published: Monday 22 March 2021
craig heath

I spent many years trying to get into medical school, seven if you include my first degree, with so many knocks to my confidence and resolve.

To be finally there, and for it to coincide with COVID-19 was rough, but as tough and as challenging as the last year has been it has thankfully helped to reinforce my passion for medicine. While some opportunities have been scuppered, others have become available, and I’ve been able to learn in environments that I didn’t expect to.

During my first year, at the start of 2020 we began to hear news about COVID-19 outbreaks, never quite imagining the impact that it would have on all our lives. The nationwide lockdown in March coincided with our first placement opportunity, which was obviously scrapped. This led to five weeks without lectures, placements or contact with teaching staff and fellow students, which was probably the toughest time especially as we all felt we wanted to help colleagues in the NHS.

While at first, I felt a huge amount of self-pity, that quickly turned to realising how fortunate I was to be healthy and not have anyone I loved affected by the virus. I also felt for colleagues, particularly junior doctors I knew in their first-year practising medicine, which could have been me if I had gotten into medical school at 18, all those years ago.

The university had to very quickly learn how to adapt to online learning, with varying degrees of success at the beginning. Technology such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom has helped us to stay connected to our tutors while our planned placements were initially on hold. Even so, there is nothing that makes up for that shared experience in a lecture room, or even just trying to make sense of teaching in the break over a coffee!

Around April 2020, the medical school was able to secure practical paid placements at local health boards, where students worked as medical assistants, an opportunity afforded by the need to increase staff in non COVID areas to cope with the impact on capacity. This was the result of a great deal of work from both sides and was organised with the utmost care for risk assessment and keeping students safe.

I spent my time not in Zoom lectures on the renal ward at Moriston hospital in Swansea, which was both fascinating and humbling; it meant more time with patients because their families couldn’t visit, and it gave me an excellent insight into the work of all healthcare staff and everything they do to administer medical care and emotional support.

I also worked with the phlebotomists at the Bay field hospital in Swansea, undertaking antibody testing. Receiving expert training and taking up to 30 blood tests a day was an experience I would not have had if it weren’t for the pandemic. It hasn’t all been what I hoped though. Not being able to work with other students and hours of online learning has been exhausting and the isolation has had a detrimental impact on my mental health.

I am looking forward to getting back to face-to-face learning, some practical lessons are now taking place and I look forward to gaining more experience in the NHS as things improve. I’m also grateful for the opportunities I have been given and I am glad I was able to help colleagues in the NHS in some way. My position as a medical student has also meant that I have already received my COVID-19 vaccinations, which is a great relief and brings a hope of progress being made.

Thankfully my passion to become an anaesthetist is still there and I especially look forward to learning more about this field. I’m incredibly proud to be a BMA member and look forward to improving conditions for students and colleagues across the NHS as well as making an impact for the next generation of doctors.

Being a member has made me feel more engaged and as part of the BMA Welsh medical students committee I have felt that we have made a huge impact by holding medical schools to account and influencing change. We’ve come this far, we can get through this together.

Craig Heath is a Swansea second year medical student