A Term Like No Other

As lockdown descended over campus, our third term university experience was brought to an abrupt halt. We’ve caught up with some ICSM students to find out how their year group was affected.

First Year

Written by Haider Nazerali

In first term, we learned about Viral Immune Evasion Strategies in a lecture which introduced us to the idea that some viruses can mutate in such a way that they become a new virus, one which has the potential to pass from animal to human, which no-one has immunity to, and thus one which can cause a full-blown pandemic. That lecture feels now like horrible foreshadowing to the year that followed.

I was at a revision tutorial in SAF when I received the email telling us that the campus is closing. The following week was chaos. Group-chats exploding. Everyone wondering what would happen with exams and the rest of the year. Myself and many other students were hit by a strong, sudden drop in motivation given the uncertainty and the difficult circumstances many were going through in terms of moving out of halls and returning home.

The results of the Government’s, College’s, and Faculty’s emergency meetings left us lucky and unlucky. The timing of the lockdown fortunately fell right after we’d finished all our main content in second term. However, all secondary care placements were cancelled, we were still required to do our exams, and the entirety of third term, the term centring around group work and where we planned all those motives we put off for revision during second term, would be taught remotely off-campus.

Zoom, true to its name, quickly zoomed to the top of everyone’s most used app list. Our lectures, tutorials, meetings, even society AGMs, were all hosted digitally. Remote studying is an entirely different ballgame to studying in person. I found it took a lot more self-control than studying on campus, and it was dramatically more difficult to concentrate (or to even stay awake) when watching recorded lectures. There is however one great feature of Zoom I hope to see more of next year – the whiteboard function. Turning it on lets everyone in the meeting annotate the slides simultaneously, leading to the craziest but probably most interactive classes we had. 

To make up for the cancelled placement, Faculty organised patient simulations for us to complete using the Oxford Medical Simulator which allowed groups of students, or individuals, to run through some basic clinical skills and drills we were taught through videos and online materials. It’s a programme designed for trainee nurses and clinical year medical students and so it goes without saying that the only thing stopping us from killing the patient was the fact that it was literally impossible in the programme (when you attempt something drastically wrong, the voiceover says ‘I don’t think that is safe’ in a tone which is a painful mix of judging and disappointed).

The main chunk of 3rd term comprised our Lifestyle Medicine And Prevention (LMAP) group podcasts and our final two cases as part of the Clinical Science Integration (CSI) module. Through a mix of online materials, pre-recorded sessions, live teaching and follow-up Q&As, the Faculty worked hard to keep us engaged. 

The podcast was a novel challenge for us, especially being the first year to undertake this new assessment. It was made even more challenging by the fact that we had to have 5 people speaking in a podcast who couldn’t meet up to record in real life. After some creative script work and skilful audio patchwork (if I do say so myself) we managed to produce some fun and interesting podcasts on topics ranging from Nutrition and Mental Health to Finance, Sleep and Physical Activity. The CSI module is also heavily based off teamwork (with part of the assessment actually being done in a group of 6) but the staff team behind it (the Big Four – now Big Three, good luck to Mariel in her new job) worked tirelessly to transfer the quality in-class case resources into an interactive online platform for us to complete in groups over Microsoft Teams – with puzzles and codes to guide us through our patients’ journeys with Chronic Kidney Disease and Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease.

The biggest challenge arguably for both was trying to organise the meetings and sessions with our group as we were spread across time zones (one of us was in Dubai, one in Poland, and the rest in the UK), and all had wildly different sleep schedules. It was like herding cats if half of the cats fell asleep at unpredictable times. Perhaps the only time an international medical school student body isn’t brilliant is when you need to teach everyone at home simultaneously.

We marked the end of first year with our End Of Year Celebration. A classic Lockdown Social on Zoom where we saw a memory-filled year wrap-up video, joked around with Faculty, saw some BRILLIANT art made by students in our year, heard speeches from all the different module teams and, of course, made ridiculous annotations all over the slides, which became surprisingly wholesome – many hugely appreciative messages for the staff who worked hard to keep our medical school experience as brilliant, interactive and innovative as possible despite the intense and unpredictable circumstances.

It was by no means an ideal end of year – we all missed seeing our friends and it was hard to adapt from 2-3 days home a month to only leaving my house 2-3 times a week; but the impressive way the School of Medicine adapted our learning events to the virtual world means I am still incredibly excited to start second year – virtual or not. 

Second Year

Written by Deepika Kumanan

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the end of our second year was far from what anyone could anticipate. We were in the midst of cramming for our OSPE exams when we had a talk from Professor Morrell stating that it had been cancelled. Whilst we were elated at the news that we had one less exam, we were also disheartened to hear that we would not be able to see each other for several months, as exams had been moved online and lockdown commenced. 

The next few weeks were spent trying to revise for our summer term exams whilst managing our mental health during this challenging time. FaceTime and Zoom calls became the norm, many of us sought hobbies and daily walks were relished as our one time to leave the house. It was an alien feeling to complete our exams in the comfort of our own bedroom, however we did not expect the unfortunate cancellation of our MCD exam. Although this led to the postponement of our exams (to the dismay of many students), the finish line was within sights for what can only be described as a turbulent year. 

However, the year finished on a lighter note as we embarked on our CRI projects, by either volunteering in various healthcare settings or creating a presentation based around COVID-19. Our achievements were celebrated during the end of year summer festival, hosted by Professor Sohag Saleh, as we reminisced on the rollercoaster of a year we had. We thanked the Faculty whilst bidding a tearful goodbye to Professor Keith Gould, Professor Morrell highlighted the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement within the ICSM community and we were all left nervous, yet excited for the new prospects that we will encounter in our third year!

Third Year

Written by Chris Oldfield

Clinical placements: All clinical placements are now suspended until further notice.’ 

– email from Dr. Amir Sam 14/03/20. 

Whilst word had gone around that medical schools across the country were stopping clinical placement, there was growing frustration that ICSM seemed to be pushing brazenly through. Finally, the email had come which meant that, with 12 weeks to go until the exam, we seemed to have very little to do. Initially this seemed like a new-found freedom, but in reality, it meant that we would not be able to see our friends for months & that we would come to appreciate the teaching at placements that normally seemed like a mandatory task.  

The faculty were generally very open & honest, with Dr. Sam hosting a Zoom call where we could freely ask any questions. However, in reality neither students nor staff knew exactly how things would work or what was going to happen. Some 3rd years were unhappy with the fact that we still had to complete an exam, an understandable view given all that was happening. However, no exam would almost certainly have meant that our four months of summer would have been extended to seven months in the eyes of many and we would never have learnt the crucial clinical knowledge needed for future years of medical school & beyond. 

In our weeks of ‘freedom’, the Faculty put on much more formal teaching than we would have received otherwise. Zoom tutorials were sometimes successful, albeit with the understandable challenges that came with consultants leading online tutorials – medical emergencies meaning they had to be cancelled or sometimes just technological ineptitude. 

The online exam is a surprisingly strange experience. An exam hall provides a certain amount of anxiety & excitement, with adrenaline driving concentration. Three hours of focus is difficult at the best of times, let alone when you’re unsure whether or not the exam will count for anything. To top it all off, whilst anxiety normally melts into relief at the end of the exam, online exams have an underwhelming finish. You finally have the freedom you’ve craved but with nobody to celebrate with, other than the obligatory Zoom call with your friends. 

It seems that next year, first term will mostly be delivered virtually with minimal contact. 4th year usually provides the chance to meet new people & make new friends which may be difficult to do when it’s through computers as opposed to in person. Each BSc will undoubtedly be differently prepared to deliver material online, adding to the uncertainty we already face. 

Overall, whilst this experience has given the chance to try new things, the sooner we can return to a normal ICSM life, the better. 

Fourth Year

Written by Aakriti Shah

In a term that should have been full of days and nights spent at Central Library, with more time spent on coffee breaks rather than lounging on floor 4 in a productivity bubble, I found myself sitting at home surrounded by 124590468 relatives in a same same but different ‘productivity’ bubble. 

I’m sure that everyone in my year can agree that their third term was definitely not what they expected it to be, whether they were undertaking a medical iBSc  or one of the ‘non-medical’ ones. Speaking from personal experience, the third term of my Bioengineering iBSc was definitely different to what I expected it to be in both the social and academic side. For a revision period that was supposed to be full of group project drama and all-nighters, cramming biochemical reactions and crying about mechanics, it turned into frantic emails regarding the medics’ safety net policy, understanding what open book really meant, and trying to stay sane amidst all the chaos that lockdown brought.  

I think what I found most frustrating was the lack of clarity, especially regarding the academic side. It seemed as if every email was saying the same ambiguous things, just with different wording. Open book exams were definitely one of the strangest things I have done so far: I just found the whole concept of sitting exams in pajamas whilst working on a circuit diagram with the background noise of a TV sitcom from the family room super hilarious to get accustomed to initially. However, after a while this started to become the infamous new normal as I found myself getting more comfortable with being around family 24/7, attending Zoom tutorials with lecturers who tried to navigate through technology, and giving exams in a time zone 7 hours ahead of the UK.

I definitely think the abrupt end to the iBSc year was not ideal and it still feels strange to think about the fact that we completed one of our degrees by clicking ‘leave meeting’, however at the end of the day it has been a fantastic learning experience. Despite the uncomfortable environment that lockdown brought, the support that I and other medics received from the Bioengineering department and students was heartwarming.

All in all, even though COVID extensively affected the Summer term, my whole iBSc year was really enjoyable, and even though graduation may be virtual this year it is still a milestone to have completed one of our degrees!

Fifth Year

Written by Tasneem Mahmoud

We were halfway through our penultimate placement of the year when COVID struck. For the first time in the academic year, my role as the Year 5 Wellbeing representative became prominent. My inboxes were flooded with messages from students who were justifiably anxious about the College’s plans for the rest of the year, as well as many who were worried about vulnerable family members and loved ones. The Faculty’s decision to suspend placements from the 14th March 2020, soon followed by the national decision to go on lockdown was therefore a huge relief for us.

Sadly, for those of us who saw the suspension of placements as a potential holiday (and liberation from firms), our dreams of a glorified lockdown summer were promptly dispelled by a Zoom session, during which we were informed that: 

  1. the remainder of our teaching would be delivered digitally;
  2. the 5th year PACES examination was cancelled (hurray!) but would instead be added onto our final year PACES (as if we didn’t have enough to revise in final year already);
  3. that our written exams would still be going ahead (nooo…) but in an online open-book format (yay!)

As well as the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, the new digitalised teaching and examination systems were also unchartered territories for students and the Faculty alike. We were soon enrolled onto an elaborate ‘Digital Learning’ programme organised by Dr Alice Tang. Lectures were being delivered around the clock over a total of 11 weeks, by frontline doctors who kindly devoted their time to teach us. On the whole, the ‘Digital Learning’ programme was incredibly useful and well-received across the cohort. It gave us structure at a time when we lacked it the most, and helped us to recap topics in Paediatrics, Obstetric & Gynaecology and Psychiatry.

Many of my peers also balanced the intense ‘Digital Learning’ schedule whilst volunteering on the frontline through the ICSM-V volunteering scheme. Personal experiences of the volunteering scheme differed on an individual basis. Most students reported that they found it very rewarding as they felt they were able to make some difference to people’s lives during the pandemic. One touching example was how one of the student volunteers helped a patient (who had been infected with COVID) video call their relatives after having been isolated in hospital. At a frightening time like this, small acts of kindness like this really made a difference to patients and their loved ones. Those of us who were unable to volunteer because we were shielding, protecting vulnerable family members, or were abroad, felt guilty for being unable to stand by our colleagues’ sides, but incredibly grateful for the great work our peers were doing. 

Understandably, everybody’s mental health and wellbeing deteriorated during the pandemic, and the added stress of academia did not help. The academic reps and I devised feedback surveys regarding the new adaptations to the course and to gauge how the fifth years were coping. We received a record number of responses to the surveys and conveyed the main issues raised to the Faculty during our scheduled Student Staff Liaison Group (SSLG) meeting over Zoom. Our Head of Year, Dr Ali Dhankot, was extremely efficient in addressing student concerns, and even ran Friday “Chill” sessions with Dr Alice Tang, where we discussed everything non-academic, including, but not limited to our newfound lockdown hobbies! (Psst, did you guys know that Dr Dhankot is a talented cook?)

By mid-June, all of us fifth years had taken our online written exams and it was an experience for us all! Thankfully, to my knowledge, there were no significant technical issues experienced (one of our biggest fears), but Dr Amir Sam really knew what he was talking about when he said the answers for the exams wouldn’t be the most Google-able. Well, for a lot of the questions anyway! The time constraint of the exam made it challenging to search for answers: especially for case-based questions that more closely resembled a comprehension exercise than an SBA. That said, I am sure I speak for most of my peers when I say that some of the questions were so complex, we were grateful that the exams were open book!

With exams over and results out, we’re now heading into the dreaded but most anticipated final year of medical school (congratulations to all my peers for making it this far!). To the younger years reading this, trust me when I say that the years really do fly by in the blink of an eye. Owing to the current reduced placement capacity, the Medical Schools Council has decided that final year medical students should be given priority when allocating clinical placements given our proximity to graduation. So far, the proposed changes to final year that we have been made aware of are: our missed placement in fifth year will now be covered in what would have been our 4-week GP rotation; we will be having a ‘compound’ PACES exam; and our elective block will be cut shorter to 5 weeks. Aside from that, we are expected to resume firms as normal. 

In all honesty, the prospect of re-starting placements after a 3-month hiatus and no cure to COVID currently in sight is a little scary. But if there’s anything that this pandemic has taught me, it’s to be grateful for everything we have, and for every moment lived with our loved ones. I feel lucky to have spent the last 3 months with my family – something I wouldn’t have been able to do if not for the lockdown. And despite my apprehension, I know I’m also grateful for the opportunity to return to placements to learn, and more importantly, to make a positive difference to patients’ lives. 

Final Year

By Syra Dhillon

After six fantastic but arduous years, the emotions of final years were a mixed bag. Of course nostalgia about the idea of leaving ICSM and fear of entering the big world as a junior doctor. But also an overwhelming excitement as, after jumping over the hurdle of finals, we’d been told countless times that we had some of the best months of our lives coming up.

With elective, STFYD and many more celebrations on the horizon, we put our heads down to revise for the last time at university. Hundreds of hours were spent flicking through Alistair Scott’s notes, practicing for PACES and trying to navigate the BNF.  After months of uncertainty, the gut-wrenching 1am Oriel update emails began to flood in with more information about where we’d be spending our Foundation Years. 

As COVID-19 began to take over the news students all over the country started to acknowledge the looming question over how our exams would occur or even if they would happen at all. Motivation to revise plummeted as every day brought a new update, distraction and concern. Elective placements were being cancelled almost hourly and we were thrust into the denial stage of grief. As important as it was to keep everything in perspective, our remaining time at medical school was starting to look bleak.

We had regular Zoom updates from faculty about our upcoming exams, ultimately leading to the cancellation of PACES and doing online open book writtens from our own homes. I’d never in a million years imagine that I’d be taking finals in my bedroom, wrapped in my dressing gown. 

Final years across the country were offered the opportunity to get early GMC registration and hit the wards as interim FY1s, a new optional paid ‘FiY1’ role. Of course transitioning from medical school to being a doctor is daunting – doing this 3 months earlier than expected and amidst a pandemic definitely added to that.

I did my FiY1 placement in Brighton and it was an invaluable experience. Having watched the way the hospital works be turned upside down with designated COVID-19 ‘red areas’ and the sweatiness of PPE, most of us used the opportunity as supernumerary juniors to bridge the gap between being students and doctors in a very protected environment. Feeling out of depth was a common emotion that very slowly but surely started to settle down with simple ward tasks such as prescribing and taking blood. After getting over the shock that you were still supposed to be there on a Wednesday afternoon, the reality of actually feeling part of the medical team was something we all very much enjoyed. 

After having anticipated electives and events like STFYD, Affirmation and Doctor Day for years, we were of course disappointed but it’s important to remember medics are in an extremely unique position. Maintaining a dependable substantial income, even through a pandemic and recession whilst caring for patients at their most vulnerable in a National Health Service is an absolute privilege. Despite the unorthodox ending, I’ve had an incredible six years at ICSM and am incredibly proud of all that I and my peers have achieved.

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