Starting work in a pandemic – a peculiar end to medical school

By Ben Gompels

Published 01 May 2020

In early January of this year a ‘world-wide pandemic’ was merely a low risk - an almost inconceivable formality on my elective risk-assessment form. Flights and placement were confirmed for a two-month T&O based elective placement in Auckland, New Zealand, accompanied by some island-hopping across the South Pacific.

Fast forward a few months and the prospect of international travel is but a distant memory. Following Matt Hancock’s announcement that final year students would qualify early, within two weeks we had graduated via Zoom and registered with the GMC. Families clustered around laptops with mortar boards constructed from recycled beer cartons. This was not what many had envisaged, but was perhaps a quintessential reflection of university life. Having completed finals in December, the Bristol University cohort was one of the first to start work, within the newly created interim Foundation Year 1 posts (FiY1).

Up until now, we had been studying under the pretence of medical students, pursuing the few remaining signatures to board a plane to the other side of the world. Now, we returned to the same hospitals as fully-fledged foundation doctors. After a short briefing from the Medical Director, we were rapidly FIT tested for PPE, guided through resuscitation for COVID-19 patients and given an extensive talk about the finer details of the new F1 pensions contribution. Any lingering thoughts that it was a normal time to be working in a hospital had evaporated by the end of the induction. It was, however, oddly reassuring to be reminded that, even in a worldwide pandemic, there is always time to discuss the NHS pensions scheme.

Senior surgeons rotated onto medical wards, often remarked that it was much like their first day as a House Officer, but for our group of FiY1s it was exactly that – mid pandemic. Within days of being allocated places, the time had come. The apprehension across the group was palpable, but there was also a collective hope that some of the content we had learnt over the last five years might prove useful.

Starting work has been an immensely positive experience. Whilst there have been seismic changes across the NHS to adapt to this new challenge, the rhythms of hospital life remain roughly the same. Scrambling for a functioning pen, chasing after surgical consultants and hastily jotting down illegible plans; these have been features of everyone’s first day for the last 40 years.

Yet though there is familiarity here, COVID-19 has overhauled hospital services in ways previously not thought possible. Returning to the same clinical location as I had as an undergraduate, it was immediately clear that working life had shifted dramatically. Specialist consultants had been catapulted into non-specialist scenarios and hordes of juniors hauled back from the community to work in secondary care. The sense of change and uncertainty that we experienced as FiY1s starting on our first day was, in a peculiar way, shared by everyone in the hospital. No one had ever been in this scenario before, and no one felt comfortable.

Teams are well staffed, with plenty of support available. Extensive wellbeing services have been established, with meals subsidised and incredibly generous community donations given. The effort of various clinical teams and the surrounding community to make you feel welcome has been overwhelming.

It has been an odd start. No one could have anticipated that when we started our final year of medical school we would finish as the first cohort of medical students to be graduated early since the Second World War. But given the circumstances, it is just a relief to return to a degree of normality and be back in hospital, even if there are now two more significant letters before your name.

Ben Gompels

Foundation Doctor
Severn Deanery