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View from apartment in Queens

Letter from New York City: What the coronavirus has taught me about a physician’s duty

From her childhood home, Stanford medical student Tasnim Ahmed writes about how the COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed her decision to pursue medicine.

I write this piece from my childhood bedroom in Queens, only a couple of miles away from Elmhurst Hospital. Back in high school, I passed by this hospital every day on the subway; now, it has been anointed by the New York Times as the epicenter of the coronavirus in New York City.

In this moment, New York City is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States; and the United States is the epicenter of outbreak in the world. To be in the epicenter of the epicenter of the epicenter is overwhelming.

My crowded, bustling city feels like a ghost town. I myself haven't stepped foot past my gates in weeks. I feel trapped in a world where little else happens outside of the coronavirus, and I feel powerless in the fight. That futility -- along with a departure from any sense of normalcy -- is responsible for the distress I feel.

I have been trying to distract myself from the pandemic as it spreads around me, but I've come to learn that's impossible for me because I'm a medical student. Sheltering in place may shield me from the disease's transmission, but it won't protect me from talk of COVID-19.

Coronavirus is now a part of my curriculum in my online medical school classes. It's the subject of the most commonly asked questions I receive from my parents, for whom I'm the closest connection to a medical professional. It's the topic of every meme I come across in social media. I wanted so badly to write this blog entry about something completely separate from the coronavirus, but in the process of writing, everything else felt irrelevant.

Over the past few weeks, my failed efforts to socially distance myself from hearing about the coronavirus has helped me realize why I can't. I chose medicine, and with that choice, I also committed myself to being informed and aware of anything and everything related to health care. As we experience one of the greatest pandemics in history, everyone is talking about medicine in a way they usually don't. It would be irresponsible of me to check out at this moment.

I think about those on the front lines -- every doctor, physician assistant, nurse and technician who confront the illness head-on every day. I look to them as a source of strength; but I wonder if they, too, sometimes wish they could run in the opposite direction. I've spoken to my physician mentors and watched interviews of doctors who speak honestly about how difficult it is to watch human suffering on such a grand scale. Yet their resilience seems unwavering.

As I live through this experience as a medical student who is not on the front lines, and I grapple with my discomfort toward the coronavirus, I'm learning a lesson about becoming a doctor that we're never really explicitly taught: one of sacrifice. I always knew that becoming a doctor required sacrificing sleep, free time and energy. However, for the first time, I'm getting a glimpse into what it's like to sacrifice personal freedoms: the freedom to tune out the world and turn yourself off in the face of crisis.

What separates this career from many others is the duty it demands. Being a physician requires an altruistic commitment, sometimes at the cost of one's mental and physical health. While physicians can tune out the news, they cannot tune out the community's need for medical care -- and I wouldn't want to tune that out anyway.

In a strange way, my frustration with the ubiquity of coronavirus has prompted me to rediscover my appreciation for being in medicine, in a role that forces me to confront it. Even as a lowly medical student, I feel needed during this pandemic -- by my parents and relatives, by my classmates, and even by professors, who recognize our potential and continue to educate us from afar. And that's a feeling I don't want to turn away from.

Photo of view from Tasnim Ahmed's home in Queens by Tasnim Ahmed

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