Medical students see opportunity, and challenges, caring for patients during a public health crisis

For some students, beneath the excitement of working in a hospital is anxiety over bringing the virus into their homes.

The pandemic was the first time some clerks had ever worked in a hospital

Alexis Charron (left), Wolf Thyma (centre) and Catherine Kim-Anh Nguyen (right) did their clerkships this month at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal. (Submitted by Catherine Kim-Anh Nguyen)

Medical students like Catherine Kim-Anh Nguyen are getting their first shot at working in a hospital in the middle of a pandemic.

"Any learning curve is nerve-racking. But I feel like this experience has been even more stressful than usual," says Nguyen. "And so much can change so rapidly that I feel like we're getting thrown curveballs left and right."

She's in her third year of medical school at the Université de Montréal (UdeM), currently placed at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal.

But it's not only the stress to perform well weighing down on students. Fear of the pandemic is also a daily source of anxiety.

"I was so scared to bring COVID home to my mom," says Wolf Thymar, another medical student at UdeM. His father died two years ago, and he's worried that he could infect his mother and then lose her, too.

Other medical students, like Alexis Charron, are trying their best to focus on the positives that come with being on the front lines of the pandemic.

"I discovered the everyday reality in our hospitals and it gave me the chance to understand all the behind the scenes of the pandemic and all the consequences that [we] socially just can't understand since [we] don't see it concretely every day," says Charron.

'It was a mess'

When the pandemic hit last spring, the university had to act quickly before residents began their placements in July, says Nicolas Fernandez, an associate professor at UdeM's faculty of medicine.

"And I think the first impulse was just figuring out how are we going to reduce the risk for patients and students," says Fernandez. "It was a mess."

This meant fewer in-person interactions with students, requiring faculty and supervising doctors to figure out how to communicate with students remotely, and how to keep students doing their clerkships and residencies safely.

And with a spike in hospitalizations due to severe cases of COVID-19, hospitals needed all the help they could get.

"A lot of the residents, especially the more senior residents, were called in to help out," says Fernandez.

Clerks all over the country are feeling the mental strain of learning to practise medicine during a pandemic.

A survey led by the simulation and medical education research group at UdeM found that out of 627 participants across Canada, 45 per cent of clerks reported higher levels of stress than usual, with almost one in five reconsidering medicine as a career.

Providing care

Fernandez said that while students are facing anxiety, the pandemic is an important time for medicine. He encouraged students to recognize the unique opportunity they found themselves in.

"There's a lot of learning, a lot of very, very rich learning opportunities out there at the moment. And I see it with my students that I work with in terms of research, because we're really seeing the limits of medicine," says Fernandez.

And students are reaping those benefits.

"I'm so grateful to be in a position where I can interact with people every day and learn medicine first hand and receive quality education from health-care professionals." says Nguyen.

For some students, the benefit is social interaction during a time of isolation.

"What helps me is the fact that, you know, the hospital is an environment where I can talk to my colleagues, where I can talk to patients," says Thyma. "I think this is what helps the most to be able to have some kind of social life."

And for others, it's about being able to simply provide direct care for others.

"I think it's amazing that I can do that as a student," says Charron.


Shahroze Rauf


Shahroze Rauf is a journalist based in Montreal, originally from Toronto. You can contact him at for tips and story ideas.


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