What COVID Can’t Change
It had been ten months since I stood on the curb near my house, waiting for the city bus. Route 3 came right by my house and was nearly a straight shot to the hospital where most of my third year clinical rotations had taken place. Although I had caught the bus hundreds of times before, I still had to calm the butterflies in my stomach. The night before, I had set an extra alarm so as not to sleep late and packed extra cash in case my bus pass didn’t work. That morning, I sat inside the front door for seven minutes, watching the bus get closer on my Transit app, calculating the perfect moment to abandon the safety of my warm house and make a break for the bus stop.
As I walked quickly down the sidewalk, watching the ground to avoid icy patches, I reached behind me to make sure I had packed a face covering. Rifling through a mass of cloth and strings jammed into the side pocket of my backpack, I grabbed a crumpled blue surgical mask. I noted only a few makeup streaks from a previous wear. I’ll ask when I get there if they have extras.
I took up my position at the roadside and was joined by a gentleman whom I recognized from a year ago. He always talked to himself while waiting for the bus, usually commenting on his surroundings or recent events, but happily involving anyone else willing to chat. We acknowledged each other with a “good morning” but stayed far apart. He didn’t seem in the mood to talk. My eyes settled on his purple rubber gloves, plastic face shield, and N95. I realized he must be a particularly cautious individual. He carried on with his personal dialogue as I fell into a trance. My toes chilled. My warm breath condensed on my face in tiny droplets behind the mask. The bus pulled up at 7:06 am, almost on time, and the two of us climbed aboard. Two plus two equals four passengers, five humans if you count the driver perched in her bucket seat behind a plexiglass shield. I scanned my pass successfully *sigh of relief* and looked around to find a spot approximately equidistant from the other bodies on the bus, falling back into the seat as the bus lurched forward.
We passed each bus sign without stopping. I realized no other riders would be joining us that morning. Fine by me; I would arrive with plenty of spare time. Pulling out my phone, I re-read the last email to make sure I hadn’t missed important information. Red building, fourth floor, 7:30 am, bring your own device for lecture. Check. I hopped from the bus to the sidewalk and turned toward the hospital. Unsure if my old badge would work, I planned to get in through one of the general public entrances. It was a door I had never actually used, but how complicated could it be? I passed through the sliding doors to find a lone security guard at the desk. Not what I was expecting. “Do I need to complete a COVID screen? I am a medical student.” I blurted out. Turns out the screeners were running late, so the security guard waved me past. I didn’t even show him my badge. I joined the few employees already waiting for the elevator, which arrived quickly, but hesitated as three people got on. Was four too many? I have time, may as well wait for the next one.
The second elevator whisked me up to the fourth floor, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Busy as ever, I thought, as a surgery team flew by on their way to the OR. I followed the signs to the radiology department where I found the other medical student on rotation with me. We were instructed to wait for the coordinator who would be down shortly. Standard chit-chat ensued and covered everything from the weather to studying for Step exams, all from six feet apart. The coordinator arrived at 7:45 am, somewhat flustered, and hurried us off for orientation.
Apologies were made for the late dissemination of information. The course was evolving, and coordination was difficult these days. The other student didn’t have a badge yet but was promised the situation would be resolved soon. We sat through orientation, learning where we could eat and drink, where to tune into virtual lectures, which conferences were in-person, and how to properly disinfect a space before using it or leaving. Before I knew it, the coordinator left and was replaced by a few residents and the attending giving didactics for the day. As we went over cases, I sat quietly soaking it all in. “Who is the future surgeon?” the attending asked, forcing me to abandon my mutism. I tried to describe what I was seeing on the image projected in front of me, floundering until one of the residents came to my aid.
The rest of the day was a blur. More lecture, more details about the schedule, how to page someone properly, how to order the right test, who to contact when we needed something. I blinked and it was 1:30 pm. It felt strange to end rotation in the middle of the day, but these were strange times. The sun came out for just a few moments as I walked back to the bus stop. Alone on the curb, I took off my mask, staring down the road at the approaching bus still blocks away. “Essential trips only” scrolled across its message board. For so many reasons, I wondered if this had really been an essential trip. Before I could think long about it, the bus pulled up, and I slipped the mask back over my face. I considered how life had changed in the past year. So many things were different. Yet this rotation had begun just like every other, with the same nervousness, awkwardness, uncertainty, excitement, and hopes that marked my last four years as a medical student. I guess some things never change.