Scott Symonds got the news he’d been waiting for on Friday, though not the way he imagined he’d get it.
For the University of Pennsylvania medical school student and more than 18,000 like him across the country, Friday was Match Day, the day when they find out where they will be doing their years-long medical residencies, starting this summer.
This newest crop of soon-to-be-graduated doctors are about to head into a medical world that perhaps never needed them more, amid a global pandemic that has changed the world.
Usually, Match Day ceremonies are held on campus with family around, watching the emotional moment when students open their envelopes and reveal the programs they were matched with.
This year, many schools, including Penn, are celebrating virtually; Symonds found out he’d be heading to the University of Pittsburgh for an emergency medical residency. He learned the news in his residence, with just a bottle of champagne and his roommate and partner, also students who were matched.
“It’s not exactly the way we imagined it,” said Symonds, 28, who grew up in Denver and got his bachelor’s at Williams College.
“Times like these underscore the importance of our profession and calling as doctors,” J. Larry Jameson, medical school dean, wrote to students.
At Penn, about 155 students will enter residencies, nearly a third of them at Penn, said Suzanne Rose, vice dean for medical education at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. To celebrate virtually, Penn told students to capture their special moment and post it on social media. The university is planning a recap video.
For Symonds, the day has brought a range of emotions.
“I’ve been excited about residency for a long time,” he said. “But part of me is nervous to start, given the current circumstances. There are already at least two cases of ER doctors who have COVID-19 and are in critical condition. So that’s a little bit scary.”
He has no idea what the status of the virus will be three months from now, when his residency is set to begin.
“There’s so much unknown about this,” he said. But especially working in the emergency room, “it’s not an if, it’s a when … you’ll get exposed to the virus.”
But he said he’s inspired to go into a hospital setting, where everyone from doctors and nurses to those who clean the building have embraced a mission.
“All those people are committed to taking care of patients, no matter what the cost, directly or indirectly,” he said.
Erin Tully, 25, of Harrisburg, also underscored the uncertainty.
“A lot of us are having a hard time thinking about the future,” said Tully, who got her undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame. But, if anything, the crisis has "really been a way to sort of revitalize the motivation and the energy I have to go into this field.”
She will remain at Penn for a residency in internal medicine and pediatrics.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said moments after learning the news in her apartment with her dog and sister, and the rest of her family on FaceTime.
Despite losing the in-person Match Day and on-campus graduation, she said she is grateful.
“I think of a lot of people who are losing a lot more than I am," she said. “If the worst thing that happens to me is that I can’t have a big ceremony to open an envelope, I think I’m OK.”
She said she is inspired by friends, colleagues and mentors, already working on the front lines.
“They’re sacrificing a lot to keep people healthy and safe,” she said. “If anything, I’m very eager to join them. So many of us would be excited to have that opportunity.”
And it may come to that if a lot of doctors and other health-care workers get sick, said Rose, the vice dean.
“Our commitment is to taking care of patients,” she said.
For now, students are doing jobs that don’t put them in direct contact with coronavirus patients. Some are preparing educational materials or staffing urgent call centers or communicating with patients on the phone or online, Rose said.
“They all have a really good heart and want to contribute in a positive way,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud of this group of students.”