To My Classmates of 2020

These past few months have been an unprecedented time of social and economic upheaval. For many of us, the effects of the pandemic have been wide-reaching, pervasive, and personal. What began as flurry of reports from far-away places has arrived on our shores in force: an invisible enemy made material through the suffering it has inflicted, and will continue to inflict. Some, at first, looked optimistically at the case-history of similar pandemic viral outbreaks in recent memory, finding solace in their scope. While lethal, these cases relatively numbered in the few, not the many. While they did burn, and burn brightly, their candles were snuffed out. This is different. The woodshed has ignited, and the tinder is dry. 

I consider myself fortunate that I and my classmates, the brightest most dedicated people I have ever known, will soon be able to step in, and to find our place amongst those already working tirelessly for others. But is it enough? Are we ready? Can one be ready? For four years, the talented clinicians who taught us have demonstrated that passing tests is not what makes you a doctor; it is what allows you to become one: a ticket to ride. Now that our collective train has pulled into the station, and our bags are packed (in this case, both literally and figuratively), what awaits us is a destination of uncertainty. But in that uncertainty, we will find our stride. 

Our schooling emphasized seeking the humanity in medicine. While my peers and I may yet not know how to manage these viral patients, we do know something. We were imbued with compassion, with patience, and a fervor to learn. Our curve of intern year may be steeper than in years past, but I posit that our determination will rise to meet it. This pandemic has taken much from this class, rites of passage and celebrations alike: Match Day, a senior banquet, graduation, weddings, etc. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I was not saddened by their absence. Though the loss of these events has been initially disappointing, we do not mourn them to excess, nor fixate on ourselves. Instead, I have seen my peers looking outward, and forward. What it has not taken is our resolve and our eagerness to help.

Many of us, myself included, grow frustrated at the reality of having to remain students for the next two months. Accepting, that for the most immediate future, our role is one of support and not of direct patient care, is yet another disappointment. But now, I assert that while it may feel as though we are forced to stand idly by, watching the woodshed burn, our impact will still be substantial in the coming months.

Fitzgerald’s most notable final sentence comes to mind, a haunting piece of prose and one of my favorites: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Our desires for betterment, for progress, and for reflection, are met with constant labor. For my classmates and I on the ground floor (some would argue the crawlspace) of medicine, that labor can at times seem like a titan. Impossibly tall, and yoked to the carthorses of patients’ and our own desired outcomes, it looms. Is this shadow, or shade?

We cannot escape what makes us human, nor the implications of our own mortality in the face of sickness and pain. Do not label these words cynical: for in such small and personal moments are found the largest manifestations of hope. All coins have two sides.

It has been a privilege to learn and work alongside the members of this class. Keep your heads held high, because you have earned the right to do so.

Feature photo courtesy of Raychel Simpson, Class of 2020

About the Author: Zachary Waldman
Zachary Waldman is a fourth year medical student at UofSC School of Medicine Greenville. Originally from Philadelphia, he completed his undergraduate education at The Honors College at the College of Charleston. In his spare time, he enjoys playing guitar, cooking, working on his motorcycle, and spending time with his fiancee Shelby. Next year, he will begin his general surgical training at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.