When medical schools switched to online learning in March, “It was a lot harder to do by myself,” said Michael O’Connor, 25, a second-year student at Thomas Jefferson University.

Add to the usual stress of long nights studying, high tuition, and relentless exams the social isolation that has been imposed on medical students by the coronavirus pandemic. This spring, O’Connor moved back to Canton, Ohio, where he worked from his boyhood room.

He found that some essential aspects of medical education were lost when delivered online.

“We tried virtual dissections,” he said. “But you just can’t do a dissection of a human body on a computer.”

With the academic year starting again for medical students in a hybrid format, students have learned to get creative.

As a first-year student, O’Connor volunteered Tuesday nights with JeffHOPE, a student-run free clinic. At home, he needed another activity to fill his time, so he channeled his artistic background. Before medical school, O’Connor painted and shot photographs and even taught high school art classes for two years.

His latest pieces are inspired by the pandemic.

“I had the idea immediately – to make it about how heavily reliant we were on our screens,” O’Connor said. Before the pandemic, O’Connor could study in the library, take walks around the city, see live music, and enjoy Philly’s food and bar scenes. But “during the pandemic, suddenly all those things were gone and I was in the same two rooms – whether for working out, cooking, or getting assignments done.”

One piece is a digital drawing of a person looking at a computer screen doing four different activities: studying, trying out a recipe, learning to play the guitar, and working out.

An original digital drawing by Michael O'Connor, a second-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University.
Michael O'Connor
An original digital drawing by Michael O'Connor, a second-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University.

In another drawing, O’Connor shows what a safe “beach” day looks like now: A woman sits in a beach chair, tropical drink by her side, in front of a window in her home.

A drawing of a pandemic beach day by Michael O'Connor, a second-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University.
Michael O'Connor
A drawing of a pandemic beach day by Michael O'Connor, a second-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University.

The picture reflects the missed experiences of some upper-level students. Many medical students go on vacation after finishing their first board exam at the end of their second year, but these exams have been delayed by the pandemic, as testing centers were temporarily closed.

“It was anxiety-producing,” said Emma Cooper, 25, a third-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University, who is originally from Wichita, Kan.

Cooper’s exam was rescheduled three times before she was finally able to take it. The start of her clinical rotations was also delayed for months.

“Going into [rotations], I was definitely concerned about being in the way in clinic. That’s something every student worries about even outside of the pandemic,” Cooper said. “But now, I feel like I’m a part of the team and am important to patient care.”

Fortunately, medical students say, the pandemic has also helped to reinforce the reasons why they wanted to go into medicine.

“I came into medicine for the service aspect – to do better and fix systems,” O’Connor said. “On one hand, it’s very depressing to see the way that COVID-19 has affected communities in a detrimental way. But I also have to remember things can’t change if I personally don’t act to help them.”

For students such as Cooper, expanding access to health care is one reason why she wanted to become a doctor.

“It was a little scary at first – the pandemic made me realize the seriousness of my responsibilities,” Cooper said. “But I want to be doing work that is at the forefront of these problems of society.”

Still, the coronavirus has added a layer of stress to an already stressful time for medical students. Class is still mostly online, opportunities in clinics are limited, and students are also at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“It’s hard, but I feel like I’m lucky to be around people who are taking the pandemic seriously,” said O’Connor, who relocated back to Philadelphia in July. “Even though we’re limited in our interactions, I’m excited to see everyone again. We’re making it work however we can. We just have to roll with the punches.”