chromosomal pandemic has been exhausting for the world health care workers, who have spent the last year, plus putting their lives on the line in order to keep the rest of us safe and healthy. Now, their tireless efforts are inspiring a new generation to join their ranks: applicants for U.S. medical schools went up nearly 20% in the fall of 2021 according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Individual schools are reporting similar spikes -- New York University recently saw a 33% increase in applications for the 2017 season over the previous year, for instance.
To learn more about the people who will shape the future of medicine, TIME reached out to current and prospective students in public health who were influenced by the pandemic to pursue their desired career plans. Many were personally affected — some loved ones lost in the experience, while others worked on the front lines. Their stories have been edited light for length and clarity.
Rory Meyers, a former combat medic in the U.S. Army, has recently graduated from Johal College of Nursing at New York University with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. His critical experience caused him to pursue a career in Pandemic care.
Coming from the emergency field, whenever somebody asked me, my first career choice was always combat medicine. Everyone tells me that I am very slow to work in high-speed environments under stress. Because of the pandemic, I did indeed find my calling.
When my classes went remote, I was working in Jersey City as an EMT. My sister and many of my friends are nurses; we became a little bubble. When my grandfather had a stroke related to COVID, I was not able to go back at my parents' house, but I was still with my family on the phone. After he got sick, it made my work more personal.
When I had the opportunity during my training of becoming an Intensive Care Unit I realized critical care nurses, day in and day out, make sure the patient stays alive. Everybody talks about the number of cases, the number of deaths, the number of ER visits for COVID. Of the recovery, no one talks about it but not in public. Most people don't see the work — almost the love — critical care nurses put in for their patient. The families aren't really allowed to visit COVID ICU patients. Critical care nurses are usually the source of information, the person that the husband calls to check on them: how is he doing this morning?
When I go to work at the ICU, it doesn't feel like going to a job anymore. I've seen patients who suddenly wake up from COVID related things for two, three months suddenly wake up, and the joy they have, the newfound hope in life. And that pure happiness in the eyes of their family members when they finally open their eyes or wake up, because I don’t know if they have ever. My experience made me realize that in school they show you the symptoms, the signs, the medications, but they don't really teach you that a patient is not just an illness — a patient has a life and a family, and critical care allows nurses to tailor their care for each individual patient.
Blyakhman, a fourth year medical student from the University of California, San Diego, had a particularly harrowing winter: both her parents were hospitalized after attributing COVID - 19 in December. Her mother, who was discharged twice and died a heart attack and multiple strokes, wasn't intubated until early April. She says that this experience will forever change the way she approaches her work.
I was captivated initially by the virology and epidemiology of the pandemic, but these were human lives, and ultimately those of my family.
I took my father to a local hospital and left him outside, thinking they were going to take him in. But they didn't. I stayed there and stormed with him for the rest of the night. He's 70 years old, has COVID pneumonia, he shakes and freezes. I caught myself yelling at people because they didn't bring a blanket to him. I felt bad about that, but you feel this rational need to advocate for your parents; all this intense civility goes out of the window. One kind Emergency Room resident got admitted to him.
My mom, who is 67, didn't have the same risk factors as my dad, so it was weird that she did so poorly. I started to develop this fear of going to sleep because every morning there would be bad news. How Time passes, it's all-consuming. You're waiting for a story from someone from the medical team on the phone.
I want to be able to call my patients at a consistent time and every day for them moving forward. If you don't know when someone is going to call, it becomes almost impossible to get through the day. I also learned that hope is what makes it bearable at all. I wanted to feel like the team didn't give up on her mom; I felt like it was her only chance of recovering from and getting resigned when her odds were already so low. My mom wanted to have full code status which would give her doctors permission to resuscitate her again. When the team tried harder to push back against the change of code status, that's when I began to feel like the team lost her faith in her recovery. It was hard for me and my family.
A lot of physicians want to feel that they prepared their family, that it's their job to let them know things aren't going well and it would be unethical if they gave patients and their families false hope. But in cases where that is not so clear cut, physicians should know that the family has the best understanding of the patient's wishes -- and that should be trusted.
My experience will make me less scared to advocate for my own patients some day and it helped me understand how hard it is for caregivers to support people. I have also learned that it's really important to have family there; it's more important when resources are strapped, like a pandemic, when people are rotating all the time. Families are part of who you care for and they end up helping the patient.
Paul Duluth is a incoming medical student at the University of Minnesota in Minnesota. He died in Bangladesh in August of COVID - 19, four days before Paul submitted his medical school application.
My father took his last breath 20 minutes away from the nearest facility with a ventilator while I was on a video call instructing my relatives and friends to do CPR. I don't think I was able to be there for my dad in the extent that he was able to be there for me, and I just felt the responsibility to go out of it; I didn't want other families to go through what mine has gone through. I decided to fundraise, write grant and set up a drive-through COVID testing clinic in Minnesota. And when opioid overdoses really took control in the Native Community where I do volunteer, I started doing youth-driven CPR sessions where we also distributed Narcan.
During the pandemic, I realized the importance of culturally responsive community engagement. The Bangladeshi community in Minnesota faced not only the global but also the local impact, because they have families abroad that they are worried about. They are also victims of misinformation, about masks, about real distancing, the denial of COVID is social. In addition to navigating COVID, there aren't many providers from backgrounds such as mine where they had to face socio-cultural barriers, intergenerational poverty and so on. It's so hard to get through all the challenges and get to a point in which you apply to med school.
I was contemplating deferring the 2014 med school acceptance for one year. But I feel very strongly about starting in medicine and going to medicine right now. Especially since I'm also interested in helping underserved communities — that comes with a bigger sense of responsibility and obligation. The sooner I finish the program and graduate to training, the sooner I get a chance to contribute The pandemic really sharpened my focus. I remind myself every morning why I’m doing this, who I serve and how their wellbeing depends on every step I take. I do everything for people's family member and their collective wellbeing in a meaningful way.
Balaraman, a graduate student studying public health at Tulane University, decided to work a year as an EMT in New Orleans before pursuing medical school.
In March, the university completely shut down and I returned to Hawaii. On the fourth or fifth day, I get a call, and it's a New Orleans Emergency Medical Services lieutenant who calls to say they're really short staffed and hit by pandemic hard. They decided to kickstart a program in which volunteers were chosen to take over the ambulances to help out some of the burden away from the full-time workers. For me, it was an instantaneous, 'yes, of course, the hard part was convincing my parents!
They were basic training, and then they would take calls and talk to patients in the city, the majority of whom had COVID. We had no idea whether we’d get sick? This unknown was a little terrifying. However, we had an innate sense of purpose for why we were there. When I realized in my heart I want to sacrifice my own well-being for the benefit of others, I know that I need to do this as a doctor.
I also learned EMS is unique in the opportunity you have to play a role in people's lives. I loved this aspect so much that I wanted to stay one day in it a little longer. You bridge the gap between the outside world and the health care system. New Orleans is a very sick city and inequality was really visible in my work in the EMS, particularly during the pandemics.
Working in the pandemic made me more empathetic. I've come to understand that patients remember every little thing that you do. I can’t remember every individual patient, but I know I was the best that I could be for them, not only because of what I did for them as a person — to reassure them, maybe just give him a little touch on the shoulder, just a small gesture. I felt that if I lost the touch with this side of myself, then that is when I would know this job wasn't for me.
Finney, originally from Pittsburgh, graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelors in microbiology in May. She now pursuing a master's degree in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University after reflecting on her pandemic experience.
I was planning on maybe working on a tropical disease, thinking that I'd be able to travel to other countries. But I realized immediately after seeing how the pandemic was playing out, there is a lot of work to be done in the U.S. I feel frustrated, but now is the time for good leadership. When we do good work here, those effects often trickle down to every country affected by any given disease.
Going through a pandemic in public health was awesome for my understanding of what real health is. It was partly watching interviews on television with epidemiologists, and partly problem-solving for a pandemic myself. How can I stop an infectious disease? The human aspects of it — like how it affects the population — it is not something you always get when studying from a plain science perspective. In life, we're so used to — if you make a mistake, only you and a couple other people feel the consequences usually. However, in a pandemic, you as an individual can be trying your best to put everything in danger but other people also can put you on jeopardy.
Around Thanksgiving my whole family was exposed to COVID, including my grandmas. I reaffirmed everything they should do — please don't leave for any time, wait four or five days to get tested. It was a hard time. There wasn't really centralized COVID information available, especially since things were changing rapidly. I'm very comfortable with this type of scientific messaging, but it's hard for others. Anthony Fauci has been great. He has been a very trustworthy voice, a central voice. Science can become very political and I learned from him that it is really important to be empathetic.