I remember well the excitement of finishing my OB-GYN residency in Detroit, Michigan — the last couple months of filling in my booklet of obstetric and gynecologic surgeries, squeezing in cases I thought I needed more exposure to and waiting to stand proudly with my other classmates at the graduation dinner.
But amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the current group of senior residents is living in a different reality. They’re not only missing out on in-person didactics, elective rotations, a variety of surgeries and the camaraderie of their classmates, but they’re also potentially risking their lives.
There’s already an element of stress in finishing your residency, but the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of anxiety. At my hospital, I know of residents with long-planned out-of-town rotations that won’t happen, residents with no cases in their urogynecology or infertility rotations and residents who were going to travel to job interviews that are now canceled. With shifts cut down to decrease exposure to COVID-19, they’re missing out on a variety of experiences they hoped to have under their belt prior to becoming an attending.
In addition, there’s the added layer of anxiety, as Dr. Anna Yap, a resident at UCLA, told the American Medical Association. “These shifts are harder than I cerebrally thought they would be,” Dr. Yap said. “Having to wear personal protective equipment [PPE] all the time is uncomfortable. The worry about, ‘Am I going to get sick? Am I putting this on correctly? What if I do something wrong?’ There are so many what-ifs and it compounds anxiety, along with increased patient anxiety as well.” With so much unknown in this pandemic, many of you are likely wondering, now what?
Honor Your Feelings
First of all, it’s important to let yourself feel disappointment, anger, fear, sadness or whatever emotions this pandemic is bringing up for you.
You may be disappointed in missing out on the traditional rites of passage as you end your residency, such as the senior roast or graduation. Although there may be some virtual attempt to honor those events, it’s not the same as hugging your proud parents or classmates.
You may be frightened. You counted on those last few months of residency to build your confidence in making the transition to “attending-hood.”
You may feel lost. You hadn’t tied down a job for after graduation — now how are you going to travel for an out-of-state opportunity or experience time in that office practice?
You may feel sad about not spending time with your fellow residents, whether just in the hospital for the last time or after your shift for a drink or run.
And as Dr. Yap suggested, you may feel anxious. Recognize that it’s OK to have all these feelings rather than try to sweep them under the rug and ask for support from your fellow residents, attendings, nurses, family or friends.
Know That You’re as Ready as You Can Be
It’s your last senior rotation in your OB-GYN residency is urogynecology, but all the cases are canceled. Or maybe you’re a surgical resident rotating in the SICU and you’re managing COVID-19 patients there instead of surgical complications. You’re missing out on the last time you can experience these rotations hands on that you need for private practice. This is not how you anticipated finishing your residency.
First, realize that you’re not alone — everyone is missing out on some aspect of their senior year. Hopefully, with surgical cases opening up in May, you can work with your fellow residents and see who needs more of a certain type of surgery and prioritize how cases are assigned. Meet with your program director to see how you can adjust your schedule to fill your needs.
Regardless of whether or not you miss any “crucial” rotations, being an attending is always a work in progress. After over 27 years in practice, I’m still learning things, perfecting new techniques and relying on colleagues for help. No one ever actually feels “ready” to be an attending — yet you are.
Take the Opportunity to Learn Invaluable Lessons
No one wants to end their residency in the midst of a pandemic, but there are some invaluable lessons you’ll learn that you wouldn’t have otherwise. There has been so much more collaboration between different medical specialties — intensivists, ED physicians, pulmonologists, nephrologists, obstetricians — all with the united goal of understanding and combating COVID-19. Instead of just ordering a consult in the chart, physicians are calling each other. There is more camaraderie among providers — nurses, attendings, residents — knowing we all need to protect each other in order to survive and thrive.
We’re all missing important life events, and your transition to becoming an attending will hopefully be marked in some way by your program. More importantly, though, honor yourself and your achievements. This pandemic is what medicine is all about. It’s what you’ve trained for: to help your community and care for the sick in a crisis. This is your time to rise.