By Mathew Richards (CCNM)
February 28, 2022
COVID-19 changed the landscape of life as we know it, however, it also changed how we experienced medical school. Though we have all experienced a new era of education in which classes and lectures began to be online, we don’t often hear about how students experienced the past two years or how they elected to navigate them. Mathew Richards has done just that in this month’s blog where he shares his personal thoughts and experiences as he navigated his medical school career amidst COVID.
They’re Out of Toilet Paper!
Everything changed in March 2020, seemingly overnight. Sure, there were news reports of an illness percolating throughout China and eastern Asian countries, but things like this had happened before with minimal impact on daily life here in North America. Rumors spread that a ‘virus’ of sorts had reached Europe, and that it was only a matter of time until the first cases would be found in the United States and Canada. Then it happened.
I discussed the situation with my parents as things were escalating, and decided to stay in Toronto, Canada, for a couple months to finish the semester at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) and study for NPLEX step 1. I was living in residence at the school and became creative as they closed down the gym, utilizing furniture, water jugs and other miscellaneous items to work my muscles. It was during this time when I first heard of the run on the stores, and that they were out of toilet paper. Someone must need help with their bowel movements, because of all the things to hoard…
It was in June 2020 that I finally went home to Utah, USA. The flights were not a pleasant experience, and all airport food places were closed. Regardless, I arrived safely and was very happy to be home.
I knew that my living situation prior to arriving home was not optimal, but didn’t realize the health impact it had on me until I took a moment to “ground” and center myself the next day. I had lost 7 pounds in the past couple months, weight I did not want to lose. I have always been thin for my height, and knew it would take some time to gain that back.
I continued studying for NPLEX at home while working as a medical assistant for a family doctor, a job I started in 2015. I traveled to Arizona to take the exam and was able to stay with my brother and his family for a week or so.
Until this time, I was still uncertain how CCNM was going to start the next semester. Would it be completely online? How would we navigate the practical portions, especially naturopathic manipulation and acupuncture? I had been attending in-person full-time the previous 2 years; should I do part-time instead? I decided to continue full-time and apply for accommodations to allow me to stay home in Utah to help care for my parents “until further notice”. It sure is hard to plan when there is so much uncertainty, as appears to be a theme during this pandemic.
The next semester went relatively well, although I was very busy studying online full-time, fulfilling my role as VP Academics in the Naturopathic Students’ Association (NSA) at CCNM, my religious responsibilities, and working in-person at the clinic nearly 30 hours a week. I even tried to continue tutoring for a time until I realized I was simply too busy and had to back down (I have since resumed tutoring the biomedical sciences). CCNM decided to stay with online classes and to utilize Microsoft Teams to facilitate group organization and assignments. As often occurs when implementing a new program there was a lot of confusion, and the first few weeks were hectic, but things smoothed out as we all learned how to use Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Panopto, and various other programs. I had never had to depend on a daily reminder on my calendar to keep me on track until this time, as one hour I would have a class on Zoom, then a recorded lecture on Panopto, then meeting for a group assignment (half the group preferred to use Facebook and Instagram, and the other half wanted to use Teams), followed by an Naturopathic Students’ Association (NSA) executive council meeting. There were many times that I would take my lunch break at work for these meetings, and have to leave an hour early to come an hour late. My work was very accommodating to my variable schedule, as I often didn’t know the details of these meetings until the day of. This was a busy, yet delightful, time for me. I am grateful to my parents for allowing me to stay home for those 9 months.
I was finally informed that I would need to travel back to Toronto for the in-person practicals scheduled for March 2021. I received the first vaccine dose in January, and the second in February, both Moderna. I took Thuja homeopathic which greatly eased the adverse effects. I naively thought receiving the vaccine would make it easier to cross the border to Canada, as this has been notoriously difficult for me. I quickly learned otherwise, as it made no difference in terms of testing or quarantine.
Some individuals may be perfectly content staying locked up in a hotel room for 14 days, but I am not one of them. I was allowed out of my room once a day to go outside for a breath of fresh air. I attended my classes online in my hotel room and stared out the window at the construction to rest my eyes. I remember attempting to perform my OSCE test for physical examinations and worrying that I would be disconnected with the poor wifi connection. It was a long 14 days.
I survived quarantine, 5 COVID tests, and several mental health scares, and was very excited to finally step outside. I was a “free” man again, I thought, only to move into residence at CCNM and get in trouble for not wearing my mask while cooking and tasting my food. How am I supposed to eat? Maybe I should get a mini-stove for my room. They’d probably take that away though, and there’s no room anyway. The longer this goes on, the more I feel like a bug under a shoe, with the pressure slowly building until…
During practical sessions there were several times that I almost fainted, each time provoked by strict PPE requirements. For several months we had to wear masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves regardless of temperature or air circulation. I am grateful that, currently, only masks are required. I can’t help but wonder: since vaccination rates are high, are these masks still necessary?
The vaccine passport has caused significant turmoil for many people. Without proof of vaccination, you are no longer able to enter many public places, such as gyms, restaurants, and cinemas. Even worse, some of my good friends have been evicted for not wanting to be vaccinated. Where will they live? How much will their privileges and rights be restricted? My heart goes out to them, and I seek to help them as best I can.
If this continues, I wonder about the future generation and their ability to socialize. What will ‘socializing’ mean? More so than ever before, people are ‘hiding behind the mask’ of the anonymity of social media. Is it any wonder we see a dramatic rise in mental health concerns? It has become a symbol of the pandemic, a constant reminder of the fear and uncertainty.
As of the writing of this article, it’s December 2021 and many things have changed, and yet paradoxically not much at the same time. I’m an intern in the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic, tutoring various students online, and VP Development in the Naturopathic Medical Students Association (NMSA). Working virtually has its perks, as meetings can occur almost anytime anywhere and thus I am able to work around schedules more than ever before. However, there is also a need to establish boundaries in terms of time and productivity. Distractions seem more persistent and ubiquitous in a virtual world.
I understand now, more than ever before, the importance of social engagement and interaction. We are social beings by nature. Granted, some may be more extroverted than others, but we all need love and support. There is a reason isolation chambers are used in prisons.
If I were to only have two messages to share, it’d be these: Never give up. No matter how difficult things may be, there is always hope. Your perspective and outlook will directly affect how you respond to circumstances in which you find yourself.
There is always something we can learn from the events in our life, whether they be trials and struggles or achievements and happy moments. The key is to change the lens of our perspective to be able to recognize them as opportunities for growth and progression. The pandemic has been full of those opportunities for me. Fear turns to faith. Irritability to patience. Distress to optimism.
Will we see another lack of toilet paper in the stores in the future? Quite likely. Human nature is notoriously difficult to change. And yet change is an opportunity we have each and every day. To learn. To adapt. To become. Out of toilet paper? You may need to use a leaf. Just be careful which leaf you choose.