“To my dying day, I will remember the Class of 2022 for their stick-to-it-iveness, flexibility, and resilience.”
Those words, from Aubrey Knight, senior dean for student affairs at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), are a collective sentiment among faculty and staff at the school who were committed to ensuring students received the education they needed during the pandemic to become effective physicians upon graduation.
And now, near graduation day, when the Class of 2022 will receive those important letters M.D. after their names, Knight and members of the class look back at how the COVID-19 pandemic played out in their education.
The Class of 2022, then second-year students, had just completed the classroom portion of medical school and were dividing the next few months between dedicated time to work on their four-year research projects and studying for the United States Medical Licensing Exam Step 1, the most critical exam of their medical school experience. Students need to pass the Step 1 exam to be considered for residency after graduation.
As the pandemic began its spread across the country and schools and businesses began closing, things came to a screeching halt at a critical juncture for the Class of 2022. Testing centers for the Step 1 exam closed their doors. Students, who had carefully laid out a study plan according to their assigned test date, were left in a disconcerting state of limbo.
“In addition to Step 1 testing, most research had to be shut down, so whatever momentum they gained with their research was replaced with uncertainty of when things would start up again,” Knight said.
Testing centers gradually began to reopen, but scheduling a new date to take the exam proved to be an exercise in extreme patience as thousands of second-year medical students across the country flooded the scheduling system. Test dates were confirmed, then canceled, then others were made available, confirmed, then canceled.
Many of the students were actually sitting at their computer waiting for a test slot to become available. Some were accepting slots as far away as Atlanta.
“It’s the most important exam that we take in our lives,” said Michaela Pesce, member of the Class of 2022. “The hardest part was having to pivot from this regimented study schedule to a pattern of waiting indefinitely.”
Classmate Parth Vaidya agreed. “It was kind of like an athlete training for a big event. You’re trying to time it in order to get your knowledge to peak at the right time.”
“The resilience this class showed in a situation that was out of their control was remarkable,” Knight said.
After it was all said and done, VTCSOM’s Class of 2022 not only succeeded in taking the Step 1 exam, but they excelled at the challenge by recording the highest mean score (241) of any class in the school’s history. The national mean was 233.
Medical school is more than the “book” learning that happens in the first two years. A critical component comes in the second two years, which are largely spent in clinical rotations, seeing patients alongside physicians and residents, learning to interact with them and how to determine the best course of treatment. VTCSOM students are no exception as they normally spend hundreds of hours at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital and surrounding facilities.
As the largest health care provider in western Virginia, Carilion Clinic was starting to see an increased number of COVID-19 patients and those with the most severe symptoms. Protective gear was at a premium. Visitor restrictions were in place for everyone’s safety. Medical student rotations had been paused since mid-March 2020.
On May 26, 2020, the governor’s office updated its policy to allow for in-person clinical education to resume as long as certain conditions were met, thus allowing VTCSOM students to return to clinical rotations.
When members of the Class of 2022 began their two years of rotations in July 2020, the usual six-week rotations throughout various specialties were revised to four clinical weeks and two weeks online learning on their own. VTCSOM worked closely with Carilion to organize a schedule that would also accommodate members of the Class of 2021, who missed their last couple of rotations when everything halted that March.
“Once again, the Class of 2022 was very understanding of the dynamics and recognizing that their rotation schedules were not going to be what they thought they would be,” Knight said. “They continued to march through the year in a very different way.”
He praised the work of the school’s clerkship directors, clinical chairs, and faculty for recognizing the importance of maintaining the integrity of the clinical education for the students while making decisions that, at their core, had the safety of patients, students and health care providers in mind.
“Dr. Tracey Criss, VTCSOM associate dean for clinical education, years three and four, and Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, medical director of infection prevention and control at Carilion Clinic, need to be singled out for their tireless work in assuring that the class of 2022 were able to safely stay engaged in their clinical education,” Knight said.
Class President Will Reis encouraged his classmates to look at the big picture. “Our goal was to graduate in the most efficient way with the best education possible,” he said. “And in the end, we met and even surpassed that goal. We just did what we were supposed to do.”
As the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the Roanoke and New River valleys, VTCSOM students were asked to not travel during the 2020 holidays. Members of the Class of 2022 decided to make the best of the situation by holding Thanksgiving among themselves by way of Zoom. Have Zoom, will travel.
“Making the most of the changes the pandemic caused in their medical school experience, this class supported each other and demonstrated a cohesiveness that I’ve never seen before,” Knight said. They recognized that life takes twists and turns, and we can either fall prey to them or learn from them.”
Members of the Class of 2022 began interviewing for residencies across the country. Traditionally, this is a time when medical students travel to various hospitals and academic health centers to meet with key people in the field of medicine they hope to pursue. It’s a stressful time, but also an opportunity for students to get a feel for the culture of the program and the geographic location to determine what would be a good fit.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, residency interviews were held online, and the Class of 2022 again had to adapt. Not all the changes proved to be negative though.
“It would have been nice to interview in-person, but we saved a lot of money by not traveling,” Vaidya said.
Spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve)
During the pandemic, dozens of medical students, including the members of the Class of 2022, found ways to help fellow students, health care workers, and the community at large. At an urgent request from the Virginia Department of Health, more than 100 students, faculty, and staff signed on to be part of the Medical Reserve Corps. Volunteers were involved in contact tracing and administering vaccines.
Others helped design, assemble, and distribute personal protective equipment to health care workers, a vital effort especially during early shortages.
“I think a huge positive from all of this is that we found a great deal of joy and that we could be useful by volunteering,” Pesce said.
Perhaps one of the most significant acts of service for the class was the care they gave to each other.
Reis sent notes of encouragement to his classmates and regularly checked in to see how they were doing. Members of the class helped each other by offering study tips or helpful information with the group.
“The Class of 2022 chose to accept the changes to their education and the world around them and make the best of what was offered to them,” Knight said. “And without question, they have done that.”
The ninth class of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will graduate Saturday, May 7, at 9 a.m. The ceremony will be livestreamed.