The Courage of Medical Students

In contrast to the students who flouted the coronavirus on spring break beaches, America's med students are graduating early and joining other medical professionals in the fight against COVID-19, Terry Hartle writes.

April 20, 2020
 
Rutgers University
Rutgers University medical students
 

It’s easy to shake our heads at the college students who flouted public health guidance and flooded Florida beaches even as COVID-19 spread across the country. But anger over the self-centered, selfish behavior of some students should not overshadow the remarkable courage and character being demonstrated by another group of students.

The coronavirus played havoc with all types of postsecondary education, and medical schools were no exception. Many medical students found their classes terminated and their clinical rotations cut. But rather than take a vacation from what was an extensive and intensive education journey, many felt called to serve. So they staffed patient hotlines, volunteered as first responders and raised money to buy, or even make, protective gear for hospital staff.

Now, medical schools around the country, like New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine and Rutgers University's New Jersey Medical School, are holding virtual graduation ceremonies. And many of these newly minted doctors are raising their hands, reciting the Hippocratic oath and volunteering to work in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic -- New York City.

Shortening the length of an education during a national crisis is not totally new. During World War II, both West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy shortened their programs to get young officers to the front lines as fast as possible. The young men (and they were all men at that point) went willingly.

Today, these young doctors are demonstrating that same commitment and idealism. While World War II was fought across the globe, today the front lines are in hospitals spread across the nation. If there is one word to summarize what these idealistic young people share with that earlier generation of heroes, it is courage.

Courage is a curious character trait, because it cannot be seen in advance. It’s impossible to tell if someone has it until they are placed in a situation where they demonstrate it.

Allison Horan, a medical student who urged NYU to get her class into the fight, has it. “I’m signing up, with the understanding that I’m here to help and to serve, however is needed,” she told The New York Times.

So does her classmate Evan Gerber, who added, “It was a really easy decision to do this. You have a moral obligation to society.”

All generations tend to think that those who follow them are spoiled, soft, self-centered and unworldly. Perhaps. But it’s equally true that all generations produce people who are idealistic, purposeful and ready to tackle the world’s great challenges. And while these young doctors may not be launching a battlefield assault, they are voluntarily and eagerly walking -- no, running -- into a modern battlefield. And the veteran doctors who are stretched to the limit saving lives will be grateful for the reinforcements.

So while we criticize young people, including college students, who think only of themselves, we must recognize and applaud those who are using their education and training to serve the public good, even if it puts their own lives at risk. Courage is an old virtue that never goes out of style. And it’s important to shine a spotlight on it when we see it.

We live in dispiriting times. It’s tough to read the daily news, and serious planning for the future seems a fool’s errand. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You do not need to know … exactly where it is all going. What you really need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

That’s why these medical students both instruct and inspire. Idealism married with courage is a powerful force. How wonderful and rare to see it so vividly displayed.

Bio

Terry Hartle is senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

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