In April, Sreya Pattipati, a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania, received a text from her aunt, a critical care specialist in India, where a dangerous second coronavirus wave was taking hold.
“The waters are dark and deep at the moment. We are trying to hold on,” the text read. “My team and I are exhausted, depressed, and totally lost. I hope this ends soon.”
Pattipati recently completed her first year virtually and has hopes to follow her aunt in a career in medicine. But the pandemic’s toll on health care workers’ physical and mental health, its exposure of serious gaps in the health care system, and her extended family’s battle on the front lines in India has made her wary.
“[The pandemic] made me deeply consider the profession that I wanted to go into, but I ultimately think it has motivated me more,” she said. Her goal is to help decrease health disparities and increase access to high-quality care, “and the pandemic highlighted those existing inequalities and how it was exacerbated,” she said.
As it has for many of her peers, the pandemic has only confirmed her desire to become a doctor. Students studying medicine said they grappled with their career decision during the pandemic and had to reevaluate their reason for either sticking with it or switching paths.
Reconsidering Career Path
Cody Ritz, a student at the Drexel University College of Medicine who recently completed his first year, couldn’t help but second-guess his decision to become a doctor at the height of the pandemic.
“It just felt like every other day, I was hearing some horror story or some burnout thing or some physicians taking their lives, because they couldn’t handle the pressure, and seeing those things prompted me to search myself again and go back to my baseline motivations as to why I wanted to do medicine in the first place,” he said.
The suicides of an emergency medical technician and emergency physician in New York City last year drew attention to the mental health crisis among health care workers. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in February found that about 30% of health care workers considered leaving their profession, while more than half felt “burned out” going to work.
The poll also found that younger health care workers were more likely to suffer from a mental health issue, with 75% of respondents under age 30 reporting worry or stress due to COVID-19.
Ritz said being at the beginning of the journey to becoming a doctor made the chaos that much more intimidating.
“Did I make the right decision?” he would ask himself. “Am I doing the right thing? Is this really what I want to commit to?”
The pandemic also highlighted the reality of practicing medicine, Ritz said.
“As a med student, sometimes you can be optimistic in how you look at medicine,” he said. “You have all these goals of how you might be able to make a difference ... and then you see people who are in the thick of it.”
Stephanie Javier Fagbemi, who recently began her fourth and final year at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, said, “A lot of people have given their lives practicing medicine, especially during the pandemic … because they were such selfless people. I don’t want to lose my life, but I want to be as selfless as that — care for my patients as if they were my family.”
Anthony Scarpone-Lambert, who graduated from Penn’s School of Nursing in May, spent his final semester of clinical rotations in the emergency department of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania during the pandemic. There, he saw up close the exhaustion and lack of support that nurses were experiencing.
“A lot of the nurses I was working within the emergency department were changing to go to other units or specialties because there were a lot of challenges in the emergency room that were really frustrating to nurses,” he said.
That inspired Scarpone-Lambert to explore a side of health care he had never considered before: entrepreneurship.
“I was just always noticing so many insufficiencies that I felt inspired to find solutions for and make more of an impact by creating solutions that make sense for the front-line health care workers,” he said.
Instead of becoming a clinical nurse, Scarpone-Lambert will work full time on his company Lumify Care, which provides wearable LED night-lights that do not disturb sleeping patients for health care workers.
“I really enjoyed clinical care, but I think for me, specifically, especially during the pandemic, I realized that I really needed to almost be more of a leader in making more of an impact through entrepreneurship,” he said.
Despite the many stressors of the pandemic, students said the last year has reinforced their desire to pursue a career in health care.
Students pointed to how the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest in public health, expand insurance coverage, and increase health care access for underserved populations.
“Seeing those health disparities in an even more amplified light in the past year with COVID reinforced that the field in which I saw myself doing the most good was in medicine,” said Heta Patel, an incoming first-year student at the Perelman School of Medicine.
Applications to medical schools in Philadelphia, and nationwide, soared this last admissions cycle. Temple’s master’s of public health program saw a 120% increase in first-year students enrolled in 2020.
Ritz plans to take a year off from medical school to pursue a master’s of public health at Drexel. The pandemic’s exposure of the health care system’s flaws encouraged him to explore ways to avoid catastrophes such as the COVID-19 pandemic in the future, he said.
Pattipati, who is majoring in health and societies with a concentration in public health, said that although her aunt’s experiences in India prompted her to consider the drawbacks of certain specialties — particularly those at the front lines — the pandemic has only strengthened her interest in the policy side of health care.
“I think what really struck me with this pandemic is that a lot of it was preventable, and I think that’s what I hope to work toward: no unnecessary casualties,” she said.