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A call to action: Medical school students throughout the region are helping fight the coronavirus

Some of them will graduate early and begin their residencies in hospitals that sorely need them.

Peter Alsharif, of Bergen County, N.J., will graduate from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School next week and start his residency in emergency medicine early at University Hospital in Newark.
Peter Alsharif, of Bergen County, N.J., will graduate from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School next week and start his residency in emergency medicine early at University Hospital in Newark.Read moreCourtesy of Peter Alsharif

Next Friday, fourth-year students from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School — many likely sitting at home — will take part in a virtual graduation ceremony, held nearly six weeks early.

They’ll raise their hands and cite the Hippocratic Oath, pledging to “exercise my art solely for the care of my patients.” Then they’ll be off to face a pandemic, perhaps the greatest medical challenge of their lifetime.

Rutgers, like some other medical schools around the country, is sending off its 192 graduates early so they can start their residencies if hospitals need them.

David Raile, 31, who is headed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said just graduating and becoming a doctor was something “we’ve all been pining for.” He added, "Now we’re all going to graduate and be part of this super team of medical providers.”

» READ MORE: It’s Match Day: Newest crop of medical students to begin their residencies in the age of the coronavirus

As the coronavirus spread last month, most medical school students nationally were pulled off clinical rotations for their safety, but also because there wasn’t enough protective gear.

Now, largely by their own initiative and desire to help, they’re staffing patient hotlines, raising money to buy face masks for their health-care colleagues and in some cases babysitting for them. At Thomas Jefferson University this week, medical and nursing students and others assembled 10,000 face shields for hospital staff out of plastic, foam cushioning and elastic products provided by a local manufacturer.

Another group of students from local colleges raised more than $38,000 to buy and deliver protective gear to hospitals, paramedics, and the Department of Public Health in Philadelphia.

“We felt pretty helpless sitting at home when we know so many people just a year or two ahead of us in school are attacking this pandemic at the core,” said Gabrielle Yankelevich, a third-year medical student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We all just wanted to help.”

Yankelevich, 25, of Malvern, said the effort started with a Facebook group and her landlord, who knew a company that sells face masks. They raised $1,000 in less than an hour for 20 boxes and kept going, she said. They’ve provided more than 7,000 masks, she said, and also are starting to supply gloves, thermometers and other equipment.

Mary White, 24, a third-year medical student at Jefferson, has volunteered to call patients scheduled for non-virus medical appointments — to check on their condition, field their concerns and encourage them to consider a virtual visit.

» READ MORE: Colleges stand to lose millions because of the coronavirus

White is one of more than 200 volunteers, mostly medical and nursing students, filling roles needed by Jefferson.

Increasingly, these students and others may find themselves back on the front lines, along with their counterparts from Rutgers. Alison Whelan, chief medical education officer for the American Association of Medical Colleges, said nearly every medical school around the country is considering graduating students early so they can begin hospital residencies. (Residents are supervised by attending physicians. They have passed two of three parts of their medical licensing exams and will take the third part after their first year of residency.)

“It’s important to recognize as students graduate with an M.D. degree, they are graduating ready for supervised practice, not independent practice,” Whelan said. “So they will need appropriate supervision.”

New York University, in an area hit hardest by the virus, was one of the first to announce early graduation. Other local colleges, besides Rutgers, said they had not decided to do so.

“We have considered the possibility … for those students who have met all graduation requirements" and who are serving their residencies at Temple University Hospital (TUH), said Jeremy Walter, a Temple health spokesperson. “We will continue to review the potential … should the clinical need arise.”

Rutgers began considering the possibility six weeks ago when it became clear the virus would strike the area, said Robert L. Johnson, dean of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Students complete their requirements in April, but normally wait until mid-May to graduate.

“It became obvious that maybe we could do it another way,” said Johnson, who also still practices medicine and has treated patients with the coronavirus. “They can begin and be a very important part of a workforce that is tackling the infection at a point when we really, really need increased numbers of persons.”

Of the 192 graduating this month, 38 will begin residencies early at University Hospital in Newark and the VA hospital in East Orange, he said. He’s not sure how many other hospitals will call upon students to start early.

Nearly 60 were matched to hospitals in New York — 43 of them in New York City — and 62 to hospitals in New Jersey.

Among them is Peter Alsharif, 27, of Bergen County. First he was pulled off his clinical rotation at University Hospital last month. Then he learned in an email he’d be graduating early and heading back there for his residency in emergency medicine, one likely to put him on the front lines.

He’s not sure exactly when he’ll start, but he’s ready, he said.

“I can finally get back in there and see patients, and get involved in this national effort," he said.

Certainly he has some fear, he said. But it’s mixed with the knowledge that medical students are younger, healthy people who know how to take precautions.

“We’re worried for our loved ones, our classmates and colleagues, and for our future patients and also for ourselves," said Raile, of Minneapolis, whose Penn residency will be in internal medicine. “We’re just wondering what the next few weeks and months are going to be like.”

He’s not sure whether Penn will ask him to report early.

“If they call us, we’ll go,” he said.