Intercalating through a Pandemic - A Medical Student’s Perspective.

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29 Apr 2020

Aya Riad is a third-year medical student at the University of Edinburgh, currently undertaking a BMedSci in Surgical Sciences. She has interests in academic surgery, global health and medical informatics and has recently been awarded the RCS Intercalated Bachelor of Science Degree in Surgery Grant for her dissertation with Edinburgh Surgical Informatics team. She is the Edinburgh Regional Lead for the STARSurg research collaborative and is involved in various student societies, including being Vice Convenor of the Medical Students Council and Senior Vice President of the Edinburgh Student Surgical Society.

Aya has given us an insight into how her life as a medical student has changed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Q1. How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your life as a medical student?

I was in quite a unique, and as such fortunate, position since I was intercalating this year and my formal teaching concluded in February. My only outstanding piece of work was my dissertation and because of COVID-19 my foreign experience of a “normal” student’s contact hours quickly became absolutely no contact hours. I am very lucky to be able to access to the data needed for my dissertation remotely so my project has not been too disrupted, but others had their lab projects cut short and had to write up using whatever they managed to achieve up until that point. Our project presentations have been cancelled and exams have gone online – getting an email asking me which time zone I plan on being in for my exam is not something I ever anticipated. I am due to start fourth year on 10th August, and whilst that appears to still be the plan no one knows for certain.

In my case the outbreak primarily affected my extracurricular commitments and social life. We had to halt data collection for the COMPASS study, which I was involved in the organisation of locally, and all student society events were cancelled – including our surgical society’s conference held in partnership with the college, which our conference convenors had put a lot of effort into arranging. I have been social distancing for several weeks now which has brought my daily routine to a halt, as well as negating what would have been a very badly timed Easter trip to Florence with friends. I consider myself to be in a very privileged position but am regularly struck by the magnitude of what we are going through, and the uncertainty about when this will be over and what life will look life on the other side.

Q2. What is a typical day been like for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Funnily enough, this is not the first time I have ever lived in lockdown. I’m Egyptian and was still living in Cairo during the 2011 revolution when a nationwide curfew was imposed. This was a very different scenario; while there were safety concerns there was no concept of social distancing or fear of infection. I wanted to set intentions about how I spent my time during the lockdown; I needed to write my dissertation, revise for my exams, but also I wanted to do all the things that were always at the bottom of my to-do list which never seemed as urgent as everything else.

I try to get up early each morning and I spend the first bit of the day meditating and exercising – a lot of companies have made their applications free or discounted during the pandemic, which is why I am now the proud owner of a subscription to the New Yorker magazine with a free tote bag on the way. I then commence my first work session of the day until the early afternoon, at which point I take a break and come back for a second work session until the evening. I was never really one to work in a library, but instead I used to work my way around Edinburgh’s independent café scene. Needless to say, this lockdown has saved me a lot of money previously reserved exclusively for the purchase of artisan coffee, but it also meant I have had to set up a sustainable workstation at home. It helps me to find a sunny spot, have music playing and my mobile notifications switched off.

In the evenings, I sometimes have committee zoom meetings (once I even managed two at the same time through well-timed muting). I also facetime friends and have participated in a couple online pub quizzes, and we frequently find ourselves musing over how these calls remind us of the realities of pre-lockdown life, as far away as that now seems. I try to unwind before going to bed and watch something completely unrelated to COVID-19 (so my phone and the news remain switched off). I was less productive during the first week or so of lockdown as I established my routine, but I would gladly do it again because I think it was really worth building those habits.  

I’ve found it very strange to be completely in control of my own schedule, with no time wasted getting to and from places. The amount of things we have managed to replace with online equivalents (such as zoom meetings or just a quick email) makes you wonder if this streamlined way of doing things will be a permanent positive which comes out of this experience. I am yet to master differentiating between weekdays and weekends (currently my best indicator is the amount of emails I receive) and managing to stay away from social media, so these are my two new goals. Another thing I think is worth mentioning is to be kind to ourselves if at times we are not getting everything done at the pace we wished, or are used to, and to not underestimate the mental toll this pandemic is taking.

Q3. Have you felt supported as a medical undergraduate since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Absolutely. We have received a lot of communication from the university on how this will affect our dissertations and exams and what to do if we need more individualised support. Sitting on the Medical Students’ Council and liaising with staff during this tough time I know first-hand how much hard work has been going on behind the scenes to ensure that we all feel supported and our education receives minimal disruption. I think there has been a real sense of community amongst both students and staff in the medical school during this time, and I have never been prouder or more convinced of the profession I am about to join.

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