How did you end up volunteering during the pandemic?
When the medical school was closed and our course was suspended a lot of students got in touch with the course director to ask how we could help. Then in late March we were sent a list of jobs where we would be helpful. I felt really lucky, so many young people were sent home from university with nothing to do but I had something tangible to do. It was so easy to feel helpless at the height of lockdown and I was glad to have something to do.
What job did you do?
I actually did two jobs. The first one was working in ICU helping health workers to change their PPE. This is called “donning and doffing”. This was in a dedicated area outside the ICU and took place in sheds. As doctors and nurses came out of hot areas (areas where they have come into contact with COVID-19) we would doff their PPE in an infection safe manner and make sure they were disinfected.
The other role I did was working on staff research looking at the COVID-19 presence and antibodies in staff working at the hospital.
What was it like?
During normal student life you don’t really have a set routine but working shifts of 7-7 or 9-5 it felt nice to have a routine. At the time it felt so normal but now when I look back it was quite strange.
It wasn’t scary because the medical school only gave us jobs that were within our capabilities. In terms of the disease, being young I felt in less danger and living with other medical students I was less concerned about passing it on to someone I lived with. In all I was really pleased to be able to do something when everyone else was in overdrive.
It was very sobering seeing people living with the impact of the virus. When it was really busy and we were helping with nightshifts, we helped some of the nurses with more manual jobs like turning patients. It was very hard-hitting to see the reality of COVID’s impact on individuals.
How did this impact your studies?
As 4th years we’d already had about six months of placements in hospital but it’s very different as a medical student. You can often feel like a spare part of the ward as you’re there and doing things to practice and learn. The jobs I did were less complicated than what I’d done as a medical student but they felt more rewarding and I felt like an important part of the team. I learnt a considerable amount that I don’t think I would have had the chance to learn until I became a junior doctor upon graduation.
I felt really well supported because I’m living with really good friends and the medical school also offers pastoral care which is very present with lots of things in place such as online drop-in sessions. I found being around people who were in so much more difficult situations than myself, as a young, healthy person that I was lucky to be able to do something.
Our 4th year is very relaxed, and my own ambitions and goals haven’t really changed. It’s so difficult for some students whose experience changed entirely. I was still living with my friends, still at university so it didn’t really change. I know it must be so hard for some students.
What’s next for you and the other student volunteers?
We’re actually not volunteers anymore, we’re now paid for the work we do.
I am just entering my 5th year. In our spare time a group of medical students, including myself are helping with the symptomatic testing clinic, which forms part of the Early Alert Service. We will take swabs from students who may have COVID-19 and do a consultation where we talk to them about their recent contact, how this affects the people in their bubble and what they need to do next.
I know this will be hard for many first-years who are just starting to make friends and “Freshers Flu”, which is often a cold, a sore throat and sometimes a fever, is always around at the start of term, so I hope hearing it from other young people will be more relatable.
I’m also part of a charity called Tingewick which is run by medical students and raises money for the Oxford Hospitals and Seesaw, a charity for bereaved children. We usually have a Christmas Pantomime but this isn’t something we can do this year so instead we did a fundraising cycle which raised £14,000, a video thanking the hospital staff for their work and activity books for children while their parents are working in the hospital. This has been really rewarding and made us feel like more of a team.