What it’s like to be a doctor in training in the middle of a pandemic

Brook Wagen in front of her home in Austin on May 15, 2021.
Brook Wagen in front of her home in Austin on May 15, 2021.

Brooke Wagen said her first day as an internal medicine resident at Dell Seton Medical Center’s intensive care unit during Texas’ COVID-19 summer surge was like being hit by a train.

For the first four hours of her 28-hour shift, she learned how to place orders with the hospital’s computer system. Though many details have since blurred together, the 44-year-old remembers a coronavirus patient who came in around 10 p.m. and needed an arterial line, a thin tube that makes it easier to check blood pressure and oxygen levels.

Wagen had never placed one before, so her supervisor told her to just try it out. For three hours, she stayed in the patient’s room, practicing. “Now, I can do one in, like, 10 minutes,” she said.

Overnight, Wagen helped admit more COVID-19 patients, including a man who was lying on his side, gasping for air. Wagen said she had to scream through her protective gear in Spanish to ask the man’s medical history and explain why they had to put a tube down his throat.

“So that was really a great first day — I mean, it was incredibly overwhelming, it was hard, it was long. But also I think it really proved to me why I went into medicine,” Wagen said.

As coronavirus patients flooded ICUs and doctors and nurses often improvised to care for them, thousands of medical school graduates entered or finished their residencies during the health crisis of the century. Across Texas, people who had spent years studying how to practice medicine had to adjust to the new normal — and quickly picked up new skills as the medical community learned how to treat COVID-19 patients.

“People have asked me a lot of times what it was like to be a new intern during COVID,” Wagen said. “I’ve never been a doctor outside of COVID — so I’ll never know.”

Ximena Solis, a 32-year-old fellow in pulmonary medicine and critical care at Texas Tech University, said the pandemic forced her team to rapidly learn new material on the job. They would send each other multiple articles a day from European journals to learn as much as they could about the virus that was attacking patients’ lungs because there was no protocol in place to care for patients yet.