Coronavirus’ impact on future medical personnel

The first time Valerie Bennett considered what a little-known but wildly contagious virus could do to her job as director of the Health Professions Advising Center — and the prospects of the students she guides and mentors — she wasn’t too concerned.

Her boss, Interim Associate Provost Jobie Skaggs, had mentioned the coronavirus, and asked whether Bennett could work from a remote location if necessary. “So (the virus) was on my radar early on, but I was vacillating,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Are we overreacting or underreacting?’” 

Like most Bradley faculty and staff, Bennett is now working from home, realizing hour by hour the effects the pandemic is having on her students. Their research has been interrupted, medical jobs significantly changed, and medical school applications thrown into confusion. 

The unprecedented effects of the coronavirus pandemic have brought the importance of medical personnel, from physicians and nurses to researchers, into sharp relief. While those on the front line treating patients must be protected from getting the virus, the pandemic’s effects are also being felt by the next generation of health care providers and researchers.

“Medical schools emphasize the need to have health care experience, to try out the health care setting to get exposure and experience. Yes, we have freshmen and sophomores who are just beginning to explore the field, and they’ll have time to find alternatives,” Bennett said.

“But our juniors and seniors are trying to max out their health care experience, or are even applying to med schools this summer. My listserv of health-professions advisors is lighting up right now.” 

With several of her advisees working at local hospitals, she is well aware of other challenges. “Hospitals are scrambling to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE), so some of the students working there are affected by that. They (hospitals) don’t want to blow through masks and gloves. They’re really prioritizing who needs to be in the patient encounter.” 

One of her students is Charles Perez-Suarez ’21, a pre-med biomedical science major. He’s a medical scribe at Pekin Hospital, where requirements for PPE use and office hygiene procedures have tightened. Though he’s taken that in stride, he is quite concerned about threats to his research.

“A classmate and I won a student award funded by the Bjorklund Endowed Research Fund, but now we won’t be able to present at the Scholarship Expo,” he said. “We may have to start from scratch in the fall. And since we can’t go into the lab, I’m concerned we won’t get credit for our research this semester.” 

Bennett, who took advantage of the university’s faculty training on online teaching tools, is brainstorming ways to accomplish online what she’s always done in person. “I’m an advisor, and it’s time for course registrations. I often see 75-100 students for 30-minute advising sessions before and during registration. All courses this semester will be online. Are medical schools going to be flexible in accepting those grades?”

In addition to these concerns, she is most curious about the long-term effect of the pandemic. “Will this event inspire more students to enter the health care field, or will it scare them?” 

Perez-Suarez knows his answer. “I still want to become a doctor. I’ve seen the impact physicians have on their communities. I’ve witnessed firsthand how excellent physicians serve their patients, nurture them back to health, and at times, comfort them through difficult diagnoses.”

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From 2013: Bennett, left, counsels psychology major Dana Sautter '15. Photo by Duane Zehr.