Student view:

Michelle Walls: Our lecture in real time

Michelle Walls is a first-year medical student at the MSU College of Human Medicine. At 9-years-old, Walls and her three younger siblings were placed in the foster care system. Walls completed her undergraduate degree from MSU and is an alumna of MSU’s FAME – Fostering Academics and Mentoring Excellence – program, which supports foster youth alumni in pursuing their college goals.

Just a few weeks ago, all 190 of my classmates and I joined together for our first epidemiology lecture as first-year medical students at the MSU College of Human Medicine. We were just returning from spring break and I could still vividly recall the fear in my Uber driver’s voice as he dropped me off at the Tampa International Airport, stating, “The two most recent cases of coronavirus were people traveling through Tampa.” I quickly tried to block his comment, hoping that this would all blow over.

I boarded my flight with little apprehension, but I was very nervous to eat on the plane and I dared not cough. I sat in the lecture hall with the same precaution, and I could tell my classmates were equally convinced. Ironically, the coronavirus was included in our lecture. We still had no clue that we were about to experience the topics in our lecture happening in real time.

Soon, news outlets would be swarmed with calculations of incidence and prevalence rates and worst of all, fatality rates. Two days after we resumed classes, we abruptly learned that we would conduct all our class sessions online. 

Our emails began flooding with amendments to our curriculum and details on the increasing incidence of COVID-19 cases around the country. With such a large population of international students and all of us recently returning from our respective spring break excursions, we knew that the virus would hit our state and campus in no time.

Within a few days, we saw new cases in Michigan. As first-year medical students, we realized the advanced knowledge we held in regard to what was happening to the country. Despite our few lectures in epidemiology, our knowledge and skills spilled beyond the disease of the population. We all had basic clinical skills and almost a full year’s worth of medical knowledge. My classmates and I quickly began to find ways to contribute by organizing babysitting services for physicians and sharing resources with each other.

As I watched the growing measures to fight this pandemic like canceling professional sports and travel bans, all leading up to extreme social distancing, I had many mixed feelings. It hit hard that I was so limited in my ability to help the public, despite the fact that I have dedicated myself to a career helping the sick. 

Physicians, nurses and other health care professionals around the world are at the front line of this pandemic, and I was sitting in my room watching it all through the news, social media and emails. I was overwhelmed with that feeling of not being far along with my medical education and eager to be involved. I recognize that I may be of great value in fighting the coronavirus, and that I am potentially a part of our healthiest population as a 27-year-old woman with no major health concerns.

In addition, I can’t help but see myself as somewhat advantaged against some of the obstacles of this pandemic. As a medical student, I am secure in the upcoming months as long as classes are in session and financial aid is awarded. I have no immediate worry besides staying indoors and avoiding the infection. 

If this had happened only one year earlier, I would be facing similar socio-economic difficulties as many other Americans. This time last year I had just begun working as a substitute teacher, a position that is currently on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. I was overcoming homelessness and “couch surfing” until I had enough for a security deposit. I had sacrificed many opportunities to work in order to study and pass the medical college admission test and get into medical school.

When I learned that physical classes were canceled and students were advised to go home, I thought about foster youth on campus who did not have a home to go to. That was me not too long ago. My empathy for the innumerable dilemmas people face due to the virus makes me even more eager to be of assistance to the public. I can’t help but feel like I should be on the front lines with the active health care team, fighting this pandemic.

The good news is there are endless opportunities developing every day for medical students to get involved. The students at my college have been called to volunteer in various capacities with places like the Department of Health and Human Services, the local health department and public schools doing various tasks including developing content to educate the public on COVID-19. 

Surprisingly, the college even permitted students to accept a unique job position for medical students to work in the hospitals as a nurse technician. I recently applied for this position and other volunteer opportunities. I am looking forward to making it to the front lines to help my community as we fight this pandemic.

This story was repurposed from chronicleofsocialchange.org.