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Reimagining Quarantine: Surviving Medical School at Home

“I feel like I’m about to be attacked from all sides any second now,” my dad says, furtively glancing around as he drives our SUV through the backroads of my childhood neighborhood. Though these roads have always been quiet and barren, with few cars going by, the silence now seems eerie and unsettling — as if the very air is holding its breath while nature itself comes to a standstill.

Laughing, I turn to him. “I was just thinking the same thing actually.”

I find it fascinating how the threat of an obscure and newly dangerous virus so quickly changed the way we view our entire world. Just a few months ago, I learned that no one talks about coronavirus unless there is an outbreak. At that time, I was under the impression that it rarely happens. Yet here we are as the always quiet roads of rural Owego, New York become the new backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world. The sense of being in a dystopian world of our wildest imagination was only amplified by my mom’s frantic instructions as we prepared to leave my house that day. “Don’t touch anything. Don’t go near anyone. Carry hand sanitizer at all times and use it after touching anything.”

Back in late March, I was a medical student in D.C. studying for exams. Today, I am a 23-year-old living with my parents again. Despite being in school 5-plus hours away, my bedroom in upstate New York has become my new classroom. Being at home has its perks: I get food from my mom again, and I can wear pajamas all day if I wanted to (not that I actually do that). However, there are many things that don’t feel right about being a medical student who has no connection to the medical world right now.

The biggest issue for me is that being in medical school no longer feels real. In December and January, I was at home for the first time in months for winter break. That time at home was spent watching movies, making cookies, meeting up with friends, playing games with family and a variety of other activities to destress and unwind. It was like being a different person who got to be free from stress and responsibility. Now I feel a disconnect as if I am both that person and a medical student at the same time, but I’m not successfully being either of them because those two people don’t fit in the same space.

For many of my peers, who already attended lectures virtually, not as much has changed. But, for me, the concept of not attending a class in person is foreign. Before now, the most consecutive days that I had used lecture capture was when I got strep throat in October and couldn’t even get out of bed for half a week. For me, learning worked because I had a separation between the environments where I learned and where I studied. Now every day is spent at my desk to attend lectures and then to study those same lectures. The day becomes monotonous. I feel like I have lost track of time.

So, as I sit on my computer watching a zoom lecturer talk without audio — incapable of hearing us tell him that we can’t hear him — or watching a lecture capture at 2x speed (not a great plan), I feel like even more of an imposter. It feels like I am on the outside looking in at someone else’s world now.

Adding to that feeling is the fact that the time-honored tradition of anatomy lab has been rendered impossible. We started lab in January, getting to know the intimate details of our donors. Now they lay abandoned in the chilled hallways of the lower level, waiting for our unskilled and naïve hands to return. As part of an optional assignment in December, I called a member of my donor’s family and talked to him about my donor, her life and why she gave her body in the most intimate gesture to a training medical student. She devoted her life to serving as a mentor to young females in her community and wanted to be able to continue to serve as a mentor in death. In talking to her husband, I could see that it meant so much to her and that it gave him peace knowing that they had honored her request by assigning a group of young women to learn from her. I have a great sense of sadness knowing that the woman who gave up her body so that a young woman like me could learn is not getting to fulfill her dying wish.

Yet, as much as I complain about all these changes and the feeling of dissociation from the individual I was becoming in D.C., I know that doing this is a sacrifice that I get to make to contribute to the health and success of the nation. In a conversation with my Literature and Medicine group, our director said something that stuck with me: By staying home, we, as medical students, are doing so much more than we can realize. Staying home is how we give back, even when it doesn’t feel like we are helping.

I attend my online classes and, even though it doesn’t feel real, I commit to continue to learn. As time goes on, I get more used to the routine of waking up and watching lecture capture. I use lunch as a break in the day between watching lectures and studying them to regain some sense of separation that I initially felt I had lost. If it ever stops being cold and snowy in Owego, I’ll even start going outside to study — sit in that silent, still air and appreciate the calmness that I am lucky to have where I live.

Additionally, I recently learned about a meditation technique called Shaking and Movement that is basically the “Dance It Off” dancing that Meredith and Christina do in the early years of Grey’s Anatomy. I always thought that it was a quirky thing they just did on the show, but I now see that it is actually a very effective way to relieve stress. My mind never shuts off, especially right now. Yet this technique allowed me to just let go and enjoy life for a few moments. Somehow the chaos of the body calms the chaos of my anxious mind. It seems silly and, to anyone watching, it definitely is, but maybe embracing that little bit of silliness is the best way to stay sane. While it isn’t quite like what Christina and Meredith do on the show, it is really similar. Essentially, you play fast upbeat music for a few minutes and just shake your body in random ways for that whole time. You can then switch to a different song and just dance freely, however you see fit. This video explains it a little better; try it out for yourself!

The world may currently be in limbo, but the future will still come. And when it does, I won’t have fallen behind in my learning and progress towards residency. I will still graduate in 2023 (at least I hope I will). I’ll still have to take my tests. Even if it isn’t the same, I know that it is still better than what some people have right now. Embracing that change and learning new ways to let loose and relax has helped me a lot in shifting my perspective. And, if this ever happens again in my lifetime, next time I will get to be out there helping firsthand because I took the time to adjust to being an online student now. My contribution today is to stay home and save lives by limiting the spread. My contribution then will be to know the things that I need to in order to be the best physician I can be for those who are most in need of my help.

Sara Wierbowski Sara Wierbowski (5 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Georgetown University School of Medicine

Sara Wierbowski is a forth-year medical student at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. class of 2023. In 2019, she graduated from The University of Scranton with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. She is currently a member of the Literature and Medicine Scholarly Track, which allows her to continue to enjoy the humanities while in medical school. After graduating medical school, Sara plans to pursue a psychiatry residency.