Johnny Trang: Medical students are training for the next pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drew Crawford, a University of Utah third-year medical student helps at a drop-off for donations of medical supplies — masks, gloves, gowns, etc., at the auxiliary parking lot just south of Trolley Square in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 3, 2020.

I lost my dad on Oct. 13, 2009. His death certificate listed “H1N1-like viral infection” and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a kind way to say his lungs filled with blood and he couldn’t breathe.
I saw the paramedics try to work on him, but the look on their faces and how slow they were moving told me that there was nothing more to be done. After some time, this experience and my dad’s remembrance as a person, I wanted to help others and serve my community.
I enrolled in an EMT class a few months later, then went on to an undergrad program to become a paramedic and fireman. I worked for a fire department briefly, then hospital emergency room. After that, I interned for AidMed, then went on to graduate school.
I grew into someone who I saw could help most as a doctor, so here I am now in medical school, learning and waiting for my time to become a trauma surgeon or ER doctor, something where I can stay on the front lines and continue to provide care in the most direct way possible.
However, I find myself stuck at home like everyone else. As a medical student, it seems like we’re being sheltered from fighting the current pandemic and encouraged to hide, protect ourselves and prepare to become part of the next generation of doctors who fight the next pandemic.
Next” is the keyword here, as if we weren’t selected to become student doctors not just for our academics and scholarship, but also for our patient experiences and sense of altruism. All of which says to act now. This is not what I imagined medical school to be.
From a practical standpoint, it is a missed opportunity to be boots on the ground (or, more correctly, sneakers on linoleum) to participate, to learn hands-on and to be best prepared to provide care during the next pandemic, as well as to fulfill both intrinsic and extrinsic needs to help with this one as well.
Teaching online can be done for most things, even most things in medicine, but not this.

Being a medical student, we were not just selected for our academics and scholarship. Most applicants had that. But we were selected additionally for our sense of altruism and intrinsic need to help our community.
Our curriculum is extensive, yet it doesn’t neglect to teach us bioethics, teaching us to know what is right and wrong. How, why, and when to help. Teaching us that it is a doctor’s duty to do so. Being taught one thing, then being forced to do another just adds salt to the wounds.
To give some credit to why we shouldn’t be allowed to help is that, no matter how qualified we are, we’re still students; we are not employed to do this, but we are still willing to do so. We are not essential workers, yet we are essential, and we can work.
I guess, for now, I have to settle that my greatest contribution to this pandemic being the odd social media post to stress the importance of wearing a mask, washing your hands, getting your flu shots, so on and so forth, things that are already known. Then wait for the next pandemic to be allowed to do something more.
There have been more than 700 deaths from COVID-19 here in Utah. My dad was one of 28 who died of H1N1 here as well, so many years ago.
Maybe the next generation of medical students, driven by this pandemic’s loss, will be allowed to do more.

Johnny Trang, Salt Lake City, is a medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine, class of 2023, where he leads the school’s Trauma and Critical Care Student Interest Group.
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