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A new doctor’s fast track from med student to covid-19 fighter, in a hospital filled with loss

A drive-through coronavirus testing site at Stony Brook University, where Hailey McInerney graduated from medical school early and went to work fighting the virus. (Peter Foley/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In some alternate, pandemic-less universe, 28-year-old Hailey McInerney is still winding down her last month of medical school at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

She has a floral dress picked out for graduation, slated to take place in May, and is looking forward to all the small moments that cap off four arduous years of medical school: getting hooded by her mother, swapping her short white coat for a long one, reciting the Hippocratic oath with her classmates. And she has a trip booked, to Spain and Italy, where she can relax before starting the next grueling stage of her training, slated to start in June: an OB/GYN residency at Mount Sinai West in New York City.

In this universe, though — in the version of her life where the pandemic has already killed almost 25,000 people in New York state, where large gatherings have been outlawed, where infected patients have begun to fill the wards at Stony Brook University Hospital — there will be no cap and gown, no hooding ceremony. McInerney has already graduated. She took part in a virtual ceremony from her boyfriend’s couch last month, wearing sweatpants under her floral dress.

And she’s already a doctor, treating patients at a hospital overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. The email that made her new assignment official arrived in her inbox minutes after she graduated. She started four days later.

‘This is the job’

McInerney joins dozens of recent graduates who finished medical school early to help fight a pandemic that is straining the American medical system — producing a crush of patients, many of them critically ill, and sickening hospital workers. To fill the need, the governors of hard-hit states have put out urgent calls for more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers, asking retirees to return to work and fast-tracking credentialing.

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At the urging of its medical students, New York University offered early graduation for students in their final year so they could be placed at hospitals throughout the city. More than half — 69 of the 122 fourth-year students — took the school up on it. At least 24 other schools, including Rutgers and Harvard, have followed suit, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

They are entering the field just as doctors and nurses recount dire conditions in hospitals, caring for patients who face long odds of survival while worrying about their own health and that of their families. More than 9,000 health-care workers have contracted covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Many have died.

“Was it difficult?” McInerney said of the choice to graduate early. “No. I think I signed up within five minutes of seeing it.

“This is what we went into the field to do, you know? This is the job.”

More than 9,000 U.S. health-care workers have been infected with the coronavirus

She graduated on a Wednesday afternoon. Stripped of its decorum, the ceremony turned out to be far more intimate. There were no gowns. Graduating students were asked to wear a white coat and a stethoscope. Some were seated with their parents, who beamed as their kids’ names were called. One student held his newborn through the ceremony. Another held his dog.

McInerney wore her floral dress and sweatpants — “doctor on top, med student on bottom” — and wept through the ceremony, watching from the couch at the home of her boyfriend, who also graduated from medical school that day. He snapped a photo of her outside in bare feet, wearing her dress and the white coat she inherited from her great-uncle, a doctor who died last year. It still bears his last name in permanent marker.

Her mother watched the ceremony live and put a small gift in the mail for her. It arrived last week in an envelope. It was a single N95 mask, the respirator mask essential for those caring for covid-19 patients that had fallen in short supply. She included a note.

“To my favorite new doctor,” her mother wrote. “Stay safe.”

A different field

McInerney decided to become an OB/GYN because it is, as she calls it, “happy medicine.” She has long been fascinated by the science of reproduction and development. But more than that, the field seems to match her personality. She is a people person, bubbly and optimistic even in the midst of chaos, which seemed like good traits for the delivery room. And there was also the thrill of bringing new life into the world. The first time she saw a delivery, she wept.

“It’s just wild,” she said. “She’s pregnant and then literally one minute later, there’s a baby! And it’s crying. And everyone’s crying.”

Now, as a brand-new doctor, she is working at Stony Brook University Hospital, where nearly every floor has been turned over to patients sickened by covid-19, their lungs so wrecked that they rely on ventilators to breathe. Many are nearing death.

“My first job as a doctor will likely be filled with more loss than my next four years of residency,” she said.

Her first shift began two Sundays ago, before 7 a.m., on the general-medicine floor — one of two floors in the hospital that had not been taken over by coronavirus patients. She was still getting accustomed to being called “Dr. McInerney.”

The signs of the pandemic were ubiquitous. Doctors and nurses wore masks. Six times that day, the hospital’s PA system played a clip of the Beatles hit “Here Comes the Sun” to celebrate that a coronavirus patient was well enough to return home. Two or three times, chimes rang out over the speakers to mark that a covid-19 patient on a ventilator was well enough to breathe on their own.

At the end of the day, when another resident physician came to check on her, he relayed that he had to stay late. One of his patients, a once relatively healthy 30-year-old, was on a ventilator and was about to die. McInerney suddenly felt nervous. She had turned 28 two weeks before.

By the second week, the hospital had moved her to a floor filled with covid-19 patients, where strict protocols call for minimizing contact with patients so the hospital can preserve its masks and other personal protective equipment. So instead, she spoke with them on the phone and worried about them feeling alone and helpless.

“It probably, to them, feels like we aren’t doing anything,” McInerney said ruefully as she drove home from her shift recently. She went into medicine because she loved working with patients. Now they were mostly just voices on the phone.

“They’re taking away the thing that I’m best at,” McInerney said.

Even the Beatles song had grown tiresome. It was often too loud and made it hard for her to hear when she was on the phone with patients or their families. But on her first day treating covid-19 patients last week, she had reason to celebrate: One of her patients had recovered after four weeks in the hospital and was well enough to be discharged.

When the music blared over the hospital’s sound system, she turned to a colleague.

“Hey,” she said, her voice muffled by the two face masks she now wears throughout her entire shift. “One of those is for my patient.”

The woman raised her hand to give McInerney a high-five before stopping herself, forgetting briefly that the pandemic had robbed them of even the most basic gestures. They bumped elbows instead.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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