For medical students at the University of Kentucky, the COVID-19 pandemic not only shifted their learning experiences, but also demonstrated to them how prepared they are to impact the world through their future careers in medicine.

Jarrett Grace, Class of 2024, Northern Kentucky Campus
Many of Jarrett Grace’s family members work in health care fields, so they already had witnessed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on patients in their communities. But when they caught the virus, they felt the fear firsthand.

In November 2020, Grace, his father, his siblings, and his 85-year-old grandfather, were forced to quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

“It was a humbling experience because I don’t even know the last time I was sick,” Grace said. “I was shocked. It was pretty scary at first.”

Though Grace and his family didn’t have serious symptoms, he suffered fatigue and mild allergy-like symptoms. He remained isolated in his parents’ basement until he was no longer capable of spreading the virus.

Being a medical student already involves a strong workload, but having COVID-19 during the first year certainly complicated Grace’s situation. During quarantine he spent a majority of his time studying. He even took two exams from home.

Grace benefited from being a student at the College of Medicine-Northern Kentucky Campus, the college’s newest regional campus, because he was already taking virtual classes. In the fall, he was still in the midst of his foundations course, which is taught in Lexington and broadcast to regional campus learners. And when he had questions, he said campus staff were responsive through email and phone calls.

“Those involved in the College of Medicine curriculum team helped me get all the resources I needed to succeed while in quarantine,” Grace said.

Months later, Grace has remained focused on his well-being. His experience with COVID-19 taught him to continue monitoring his own health and to trust the medical system in which he will soon work.

Amanda McGeorge, Class of 2022, Bowling Green Campus
As a member of the College of Medicine-Bowling Green Campus inaugural class, Amanda McGeorge knew she had a responsibility to pave the way for future students; however, she didn’t expect to also face the challenges brought on by a global pandemic.

McGeorge was in the midst of her second year, on the brink of clinical rotations, when COVID-19 started spreading across the United States. Though students were never put in rooms with COVID-19 positive patients, McGeorge described an ever-present uneasiness with so much uncertainty.

The Bowling Green community had a difficult struggle with COVID-19 spread compared to other Kentucky counties. Things really hit close to home about five months into the pandemic when Rebecca Shadowen, MD, a preceptor and clinical role model for students at the campus, died from the illness.

“She really was a trailblazer in Bowling Green for what direction to go with everything, and a lot of my classmates worked with her closely in their second year, learning how to approach clinical skills,” McGeorge said. “Knowing we were striving to treat the patients we saw every day, but treating the patients that could be the next Dr. Shadowen, I think that motivated a lot of my classmates and myself to do everything we could and really go the extra mile.”

As local, state, and national health experts learned more about COVID-19, restrictions eased, and McGeorge was able to start clinical rotations in her third year. Her first was surgery, followed by pediatrics, a clinical rotation that typically would have provided experience treating patients with allergies and cold and flu symptoms. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, patients were screened for symptoms upon arrival to clinic, and those with symptoms were advised to go to an outpatient location for testing.

When McGeorge did assist in the treatment of patients, she had to wear personal protective equipment such as masks, goggles, and face shields, which she said made it harder to relate to them. “It’s almost like a spaceman is coming in to evaluate them,” she said. “So you have to go a little bit beyond what you may have done prior to this pandemic in order to build that rapport and really remind them that there’s a person behind all of the protective gear.”

Despite its challenges the pandemic prepared McGeorge more than she ever could have imagined.

“Being somebody wanting to pursue this career, and family and friends looking to you and saying ‘What is this virus? What do we do?’ And not having answers because as a medical student you have very few answers anyway, it just started out very scary,” she said. “But the more I was exposed to patients in general and just life in the hospital and clinic, I realized there are always going to be health concerns that we don’t have answers to, and we need people out there to find those answers.”

Though COVID-19 altered her routine, the experience has prepared McGeorge to the highest degree. McGeorge, who grew up just outside of Bowling Green, has benefited from earning her education at a campus close to home, particularly one with an intimate feel that would give her the experience and support she needed to succeed as a physician.

Gant Unfried, Class of 2021, Lexington Campus
When COVID-19 proved itself to be a serious public health threat, Gant Unfried answered a call to volunteer his time and talents and assist local health care efforts.

In the spring of 2020, Unfried was a third-year medical student in the midst of his internal medicine rotation when he was pulled out due to COVID-19-related restrictions. Meanwhile, the Kentucky Department for Public Health was coordinating a network of medical students and other volunteers to help nursing home facilities severely impacted by the virus.

Unfried, who was a certified nursing assistant with prior health care experience, offered to work at a nursing facility in a county neighboring his hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky. He admits being “terrified” at the beginning, but he felt compelled to make a difference. “We didn’t really know what was going on, and it was kind of the height of hysteria,” he said. “We didn’t know what we’re going into. We didn’t know what the virus was even really at the very beginning.

“There was no way I could have said no,” he added. “It was a neighbor in need, and I felt the need to help out.”

Unfried said the experience highlighted the need for health care in rural areas like western and eastern Kentucky. It was that initial need that drew him into medicine in the first place. Though challenging and even heartbreaking at times, he said the time working in the nursing facility provided him life lessons he will take with him through his career as a physician.

“Most people that go into medicine want to help people, and me specifically, I feel like I want to help the greatest amount of people in the most significant way or the most impactful way,” he said. “I’m from western Kentucky. I love western Kentucky. It’ll always be my home.”

Lan Jiang, Class of 2021, Lexington Campus
Lan Jiang is fluent in English and Mandarin. As a student who had nearly completed her four years of medical school, she also had a comprehensive understanding of medical terminology and basic disease pathophysiology. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she utilized all of these skills to help share important developing information about the virus.

Jiang and her friend from Albert Einstein Medical School in New York City collaborated on an approximately 20-page Google document translating emerging medical research from China and converting information from Mandarin to English. She then shared the information with a pulmonologist and ICU critical care doctor at UK to potentially spark inspiration for how to manage patients.

“I felt like as a medical student, I had the unique ability to help out, and it was rewarding to do so in the early phases of the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty,” Jiang said.

Nicole Perez, Class of 2024, Lexington Campus
Just as Nicole Perez was beginning medical school, the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc in the United States.

The uncertainty early in the pandemic complicated her plans to move from her hometown of Miami, Fla., to Lexington, Ky. She had never been to Kentucky before her medical school interview. She didn’t know anyone, where she should live, or where to buy furnishings. And as someone who considers her family her strongest support system, she wasn’t able to receive the full family send-off she had hoped.

In addition to these challenges, Perez carried the worry that her family members would get sick while she was hundreds of miles away.

Perez said the College of Medicine’s consistent and supportive communications through the process, even before she set foot on campus, made her feel more comfortable. Once she arrived at UK, though going through virtual orientation and virtual classes was a unique experience, she felt more connected than she expected.

“You would think being online, that it would be a negative experience, but it was actually well put together,” she said. “There’s constantly someone who’s monitoring the chat in Zoom, so you can have your questions answered in real time. That really helped me feel connected.”

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