The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 90,000 people in the U.S. In South Carolina, the disease has killed more than 390, including more than 70 in the Upstate. As the novel coronavirus continues its creep across the county, there is a new generation of doctors who are entering the field to face this viral threat.
The University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville celebrated its 2020 graduating class on Saturday, May 9, with a diploma pick-up. Due to rain, the school held the event in a parking garage below the medical school building on Grove Road in Greenville. Students were able to drive in and collect their diplomas while their professors and the medical school’s staff showed their support while maintaining social distancing.
“These doctors know that they are entering an unprecedented clinical experience when they leave our halls,” said Dr. Marjorie Jenkins, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville and chief academic officer at Prisma Health Upstate. “We are confident that they are prepared to face and conquer the challenges of a global health crisis, even as they continue to learn and grow as doctors. Their journeys are just beginning.”
The doctors themselves are preparing for what exactly they may face.
Dr. Carrie Bailes, 27, said the school tried hard to make graduation special for the graduates. The Clover, South Carolina, native will complete her residency at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she’ll specialize in emergency medicine, a field on the front lines of the pandemic.
“I went into medicine to take care of people, and to feel like you’re fighting a war is scary,” Bailes said.
There is also some concern over what her generation of doctors will need to learn, she said. “On the one hand, it can really strengthen us. We have to go in and take care of this. We’ve got to learn on the fly, and we’ve got to improvise,” Bailes said. On the other hand, she added, the focus on COVID-19 might result in gaps in other knowledge doctors should be acquiring as well.
“These doctors know that they are entering an unprecedented clinical experience when they leave our halls,” said Dr. Marjorie Jenkins, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville and chief academic officer at Prisma Health Upstate.
The need for new doctors to be agile is echoed by Dr. Alex Hartman from Irmo, also a class of 2020 graduate. “We’re going to expect the unexpected,” Hartman, 31, said. “Hopefully, it will steer a lot of us to a public health focus for a lot of our careers. We are watching firsthand how our public health care infrastructure is affected by an unforeseen event.”
Hartman, who is headed to the University of California, San Francisco for his residency in pediatrics, said the pandemic is “like we’re in an alternative reality, an alternate timeline.”
“I’m excited, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little bit anxious too,” he said.
While Bailes and Hartman are eager to get to their residencies, both mention the need for new doctors and medical workers to be mindful of their emotional health, especially in light of the unusual conclusion to their medical school education.
“A lot of the recent graduates, we’re grappling with how to deal with this public health crisis … while simultaneously dealing with the emotional fallout of our own social system and support structure,” said Hartman.