Leave a comment

Social Distancing Versus Social Isolation

It is 5 a.m., and my alarm clock chimes, indicating the start of another early day of studying. I brew a pot of coffee, pour a tall cup and open my laptop to begin the first of many flashcards for the day. Starting around 6 a.m., an ominous alert slides across my screen followed by the first of many email previews: “Practice social distancing … 6 feet apart … Businesses to close…” I minimize the email tab and think to myself, “Back to work.” I continue watching lectures and preparing for my upcoming COMLEX Level 1 exam in June like I usually would.

Not even a pandemic can thwart certain responsibilities. The world feels as though it is balancing on the edge of a knife, yet some constants remain steadfast for me: family, education and maintaining my own health. Another email surfaces, indicating the school’s curriculum will transition to online for the remainder of the semester. Online lectures, online exams, online assignments and, ultimately, more screen time with less social interaction. With the rapid alteration in the curriculum, many questions roll through my mind. How can I continue to refine the database of hands-on skills I have learned since day one with an online medical education? What will happen to my mental health as a result of so-called social distancing?

Above all, what does this all mean to me as a second-year osteopathic medical student?

Most people do not realize that medical students often close themselves off to their friends, family and peers on an everyday basis to devote themselves to learning what is essential to take care of patients in the future. For example, your family may suggest that “it is only dinner and game night,” though in your head all you can consider is the laundry list of study items nagging you to be checked off. With this comes the existential dread that any time spent doing anything other than studying translates to lower grades, lower board scores and ultimately appearing to be an undesirable residency applicant. Some view this as selfish, but we rationalize these actions as a selfless pursuit. We unknowingly sacrifice much of ourselves — including our physical and mental health — during this journey in order to one day assume the responsibility of being a physician.

Now, social distancing restrictions and information overload have become the norm. The same four walls surround us for hours on end while we try to marry the responsibilities of medical education with those of social distancing. While these new restrictions may at first seem conducive to much desired additional study time, gym closures and social gathering restrictions only deepen the isolation already felt by so many medical students. With study groups and tutoring sessions moving to remote video conference calls, it can feel as though we are more disconnected from the world and unable to find respite in the things that once reminded us of humankind.

And imagine a medical student who wears multiple hats in their roles and responsibilities. They are a student, and while this is a central part of their life, their children and family are not without central importance too. We also cannot fail to consider their spouse as well as their own well-being and mental health. The medical schools and libraries are now closed, students’ families are at home as per social distancing orders, and a wrench is thrown in the blueprint the student had determined to be foolproof.

In a standard medical education, it is easy to allow fear to fuel actions – studying long hours and ultimately neglecting who you are as a person in order to pass the next exam. Now add SARS-CoV-2, another anxiety-provoking variable into the equation. Professors and standardized test prep resources will engrave into students’ minds the principle of “not studying distracted,” though everyone is guilty of it. For example, the pathology reading is complete, but how much was actually retained? While there is a greater quantity of time allotted to studying right now, the quality is decreased, encumbered by anxiety, fear and other personal and family responsibilities.

This is the reality. Medical students live in their heads. They consider the differential diagnosis, string together interrelated details and observe the world around them. But we cannot forget to be present in that very world and in the current moment. Inevitably, the world is changing by the minute. It is essential to remind ourselves of the simple fact that we as medical students are adaptable. Take a deep breath; each day is only a new challenge. From one medical student to another: in the midst of further isolation, remember to always attend to who you are as a person, and do not forget who got you to where you are today, pandemic or otherwise.

Emma Fenske Emma Fenske (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine

Emma is a fourth-year medical student at Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine in Las Cruces, NM class of 2022. In 2016, she graduated from The University of New Mexico with a Bachelor of Science in medical laboratory sciences. Prior to beginning her formal graduate medical education, she worked as a Medical Laboratory Scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. She loves her rambunctious dogs and enjoys coaching soccer, running, traveling, cooking and reading in her free time. In the future, Emma would like to pursue a career in Internal Medicine.