An Uncertain Beginning to Medical School
Olivia Schreiber ’18 reflects on her remote start to medical school during the COVID-19 pandemic
This personal essay, written by Olivia Schreiber ’18, originally appeared as "A Final Thought" in the winter 2022 issue of The Stevens Indicator alumni magazine.
On February 13, 2020, I was sitting in the lobby of a medical school, wearing my all-black business formal, anxiously awaiting the receptionist to give me the cue to head up to the interview room. I had done this just the week prior at Cooper Medical School in Camden, New Jersey, which was at this point my top choice. If I got in, I would be receiving a call today, precisely during the interview I was currently attending.
With just a few minutes to spare, I looked down and saw my phone ringing. Someone with a Camden, New Jersey, area code was calling. I excused myself to the bathroom, and on the other line was Dr. William Kocher, dean of admissions at Cooper Medical School. As I heard, “We’re excited to offer you admission to Cooper Medical School,” the tears began to flow. My career in medicine was about to begin.
I had heard about this strange SARS-CoV-2 virus on the news, but like most of us, I had little knowledge of what would unravel over the next two years. All that I could focus on was beginning my medical career that August. February became March, the lockdown came, the death toll rose, and I couldn’t go one day without saying “COVID-19.” There was so much uncertainty and a lot of fear. I signed a lease in Philadelphia in June, thinking that by August, COVID-19 might have calmed so that we might start in person. By August 1, it was decided that the Cooper Medical School Class of 2024 would begin virtually.
It was, undoubtedly, the right choice to have us students start virtually, but at the time, it was so disheartening. I had envisioned this grand entrance into medicine, with all the pomp and circumstance. I wanted to have my parents come watch me take my Hippocratic oath and receive my white coat, but instead they watched this ritual over YouTube, my smile shielded behind a black polyester mask.
I spent most of my first year in my dad’s old office at home, rare rarely spending any time at my Philadelphia apartment. I became accustomed to the routine of logging into Webex by 8 a.m. every day. My mom would bring down coffee. I slowly learned my classmates’ names from the small spaces they took up on Zoom calls. I’d close my laptop around 6 p.m. every day, rarely leaving the house.
The fortune and privilege I experienced and continue to benefit from made my pandemic experience tolerable. No one in my family became ill. I had access to WiFi and a soft bed at night. I had health insurance. However, it is the loneliness that I remember.
When I think about what got me through a challenging first year of medical school, it wasn’t the regimen I forced myself into. It wasn’t the mid-afternoon exercise breaks or long walks in the park behind my childhood home. It was the FaceTime calls with Johanna and Erica, my best friends from Stevens. We would call every few weeks to check in on one another. Sure, we’d discuss the case counts, but eventually we would end up doubled-over with laughter as we remembered our sophomore year in the River Terrace apartments. We looked through old pictures from freshman year, the Founder’s Day Ball and graduation. Their laughter and these memories kept me going when my school material became more difficult and the end to COVID remained nowhere in sight.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many important lessons, some that we humans continue to ignore. And even now that classes are in person, I continue to fall back on the rich experiences and lifelong friends I made at Stevens when I struggle to adjust to this “new normal.” So I say, pick up the phone. Send that email to your old Stevens friend. You might be surprised at the warmth and light it will bring to you even in the darkest of days.
Olivia Schreiber is an MD candidate at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, New Jersey.