“Am I muted? Can y’all hear me?”
That’s what 49 graduating medical students and more than 600 family, friends and faculty heard as Dr. Susan Cox, executive vice dean of academics, kicked off the live portion of Dell Medical School’s YouTube commencement ceremony on Thursday.
What followed was a seven-minute cacophony as the graduates stumbled through the Hippocratic oath and promised to “do no harm” in unison, thwarted by Zoom lags, frozen screens and students breaking into laughter.
For the past two months, the fourth-year students at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School have watched from the sidelines with horror as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed and the disease claimed nearly 100,000 lives nationwide, spotlighting the heroism and dangers of being a frontline health care worker.
On Thursday evening, they graduated — the first cohort to do so since the school opened in 2016 — and officially entered the fray. Over the next month, the inaugural class will scatter across the country to begin their residencies in the thick of a global pandemic.
Some students said they are anxious to get to work treating coronavirus patients.
“It's been tough to hear my forebears and all of the emergency medicine physicians really going through a lot of trials with the pandemic and not being able to do anything about it — at least not being able to do anything about it in the emergency room,” Dell graduate Leonard Edwards, 34, said.
Like many 2020 graduates, Dell Medical students have had to give up a lot in recent months, including an in-person graduation ceremony. Instead, the celebration was an hour-long livestream of mostly prerecorded video featuring speakers like Dell Medical School Dean Clay Johnston, UT-Austin President Greg Fenves, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and even a brief shout out from Gov. Greg Abbott. As a consolation, graduates will have the opportunity to walk in a traditional ceremony in the future, Johnston said.
Because of the need for social distancing, Texas schools and colleges transitioned to remote instruction for the for the past few months. For the same reason, graduation plans everywhere have been upended. It’s still early in the graduation season, but many institutions are planning virtual send-offs, others will delay physical ceremonies, and some are entertaining the possibility of outdoor ceremonies with limited guests and spread-out seating.
But being robbed of their moment, one that was supposed to be the culmination of the most grueling academic years of their lives, is still hard for the medical students to reconcile. Instead of celebrating surrounded by friends and family, most graduates appeared on screen alone, settling for the messages of congratulations that streamed in through the comments section.
“It’s a really weird time for us because I feel like we've worked so hard to get here, and we were really excited to celebrate this accomplishment, and it just kind of has fizzled out,” said Ariane Lemieux, 27, who will be completing her internal medicine residency in Dallas. “The worst part, I would say, is not being able to say goodbye and thank you to all my mentors and friends that I've made through med school that I would consider my family now. It's not being able to close the book.”
Edwards said graduating during a pandemic feels “anticlimactic.”
“The saddest part is that all of this happens so fast that I haven't been able to see my classmates in person in two months, and we're not all going to be in the same place at the same time again, maybe ever,” Edwards said. “It's not the way that I pictured med school ending, especially being the first class. When we came in, we were the only students in the building and so we really felt like it was ours, and we really bonded like a family.”
This year, Match Day — when graduating medical students across the country simultaneously open their match letters to discover where they will be completing their residencies for the next 3 to 7 years — fell on March 20 at 11 a.m. But instead of ripping apart envelopes at their planned brunch with classmates and family, Dell Medical students had to settle for clicking open emails together over Zoom.
“People could raise their hand when they wanted to announce,” said Lemieux, who organized the virtual celebration with a classmate. “They would tell everybody on Zoom ... ‘I'm going to Portland,’ and we all cheer. Except you actually can't hear everybody because everyone's on mute.”
Clinical rotations for Dell medical students were also canceled in March. Instead of caring for patients face-to-face, Lemieux finished the requirement from home, compiling and sharing resources on how to talk to patients with COVID-19 and their families. Similarly, she completed her intensive care unit requirement via online modules and virtual simulations.
But Lemieux and other students were still able to contribute from home through Dell Medical’s newly created global pandemic elective. They performed screenings and contract tracing, worked on models and helped shape Austin’s policy response, among other tasks, Johnston said.
“I think it was, oddly, a really good way to redirect them,” Johnston said, “because now they've got all of that knowledge and experience, which they're going to absolutely need in their new jobs after graduation.”
For now, Lemieux’s hospital in Dallas isn’t allowing residents to treat COVID-19 patients in an attempt to limit the number of people exposed to the virus. But graduates like Edwards, who is heading to Detroit to complete his residency in emergency medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, will be thrust onto the front lines almost immediately.
He and his wife, Kate Spitz, who also graduated from Dell Medical this week and matched at the same hospital, recently returned from a house-hunting trip to Michigan. Last month, they canceled their wedding and got married over Zoom. Later, they nixed their honeymoon.
But as much as they had to give up, Edwards said he’s more eager than ever to get to work. His biggest fear is “giving coronavirus to somebody else.” Edwards and Spitz are already plotting out logistics to prevent that from happening, like keeping “the COVID laundry from the regular laundry” and driving “a COVID car and a non-COVID car.”
“We just want to take every precaution because we believe this is real,” Edwards said. “We know this is real.”
For Edwards, the COVID-19 crisis has only reinforced why he left engineering to go into health care. But he said the pandemic has also spurred in him another feeling of responsibility.
“I think the medical field as a whole is kind of disappointed in the public to see how much misinformation has been really touted and trotted out as the truth,” Edwards said. “And I think it's incumbent on my generation and my classmates to really gain the trust of the public back.”