By Odeya Rosenband
Stony Brook University’s newest class of medical residents began their careers head first, graduating early to take on the fight with COVID-19. Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU led a virtual graduation ceremony that took place two months ahead of schedule, in early April.
In line with other medical schools such as Hofstra University in Hempstead and New York University, SBU resolved to graduate their medical students in early spring in order to readily transition them into the workforce. This decision was “definitely a natural step,” said Dr. William Wertheim, vice dean for Graduate Medical Education at Renaissance School of Medicine at SBU. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) “took away a lot of roadblocks in helping us utilize the staff that were capable of doing this, so that was really helpful.”
Starting in April, 52 residents began volunteering at SBU Hospital and predominantly focused on emergency COVID-19 cases, rather than their specialties. While resident education typically consists of 80-hour work weeks, the Renaissance School adopted a shift schedule that included five days off following every five days working, given the heightened emotional difficulty residents were facing.
Beginning July, Stony Brook Medicine welcomed over 300 medical residents across SBU, Stony Brook Southampton and Stony Brook Eastern Long Island hospitals. This number included the residents who had been volunteering with COVID-19 patients.
“Residents are interesting in that they both are doctors taking care of patients, and they are learners in an educational program,” Wertheim said. Aside from in-person training in personal protective equipment, the residents learned other essential information such as employee benefits and payroll over virtual modules.
“Top to bottom it’s a different place than we were in one year ago,” the vice dean said.
The continued focus on education was also felt by the new residents. Dr. Kelly Ieong, a urology resident and 2020 graduate of the medical school, said, “Going into my residency, I had the expectation that I’m just going to work, not learn much, and just help out as much as possible. But all of the teams did carve out time for our education and we had virtual meetings over Zoom, even during lunch. I felt very safe during my entire shift, unlike my friends who worked in other hospitals.” Additionally, she said residents were each assigned a specific mentor who provided the residents with an extra layer of support.
After feeling helpless when some of her family were diagnosed with the virus earlier this year, Ieong knew she wanted to be a volunteer when given the opportunity.
“I definitely think volunteering was a helpful experience because a lot of the difficult conversations that I was having with my patients and their family members are something that you can’t learn in the books,” she said. “You don’t learn it in medical school, it’s something you have to learn through experience.”
Although Wertheim said “everything is a bit slower when you can only put two people in an elevator,” he added that SBU was quick to adapt and optimize their eager students. Online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams helped meet the demands for educational conferences, especially as residents may be on rotation at other hospitals. It’s clear that these platforms are here to stay, according to him.
“Medicine in general tends to adopt things slowly unless we have to… and we really had to,” he said.
In thinking about the possibility of a second surge in coronavirus cases, Wertheim noted, “now that we’ve been through this experience once, as hard as it was, it is going to be easier to swiftly redeploy all of those residents as well as all of the other doctors.” Regardless of the future of the coronavirus, there have been benefits for the medical residents, according to the vice dean.
“I think the fact that all of these residents from different specialties had to work together to the same end, even though it was an arduous task, gives them a sense of mission that you don’t always get when everyone’s doing their own thing,” Wertheim said. “And I think that that’s definitely a positive that comes out of all of this.”