Interviewed by Ria Deshpande
Saharsh Mehta is a resident of Westborough who attended UMass Medical School, expecting to graduate in June 2020. Instead, under Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to address the coronavirus pandemic, his batch became one of the first in the country to graduate months early in March.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about his unique experience. Read his inspiring story below!
Where do you work?
I spent seven weeks in a surgical ICU unit at UMass Memorial, which is meant for patients who need non-emergent surgeries. However, due to the pandemic, the unit was converted into a coronavirus ICU for very sick patients who either tested positive or were suspected to have COVID-19. I will be starting as an orthopedic surgery resident at UMass in July.
How did you handle the transition from academics to crisis, especially since it happened so quickly?
In medical school, while years one and two are primarily didactic, years three and four are clinical where you rotate through different specialties. At UMass, this is done gradually, with one-month rotations at different hospitals in Massachusetts such as Cape Cod Hospital, Saint Vincent’s Hospital, and Milford Medical Center. This definitely made me more malleable and accepting of different workflows and strategies. My coworkers and the protocols in place helped me integrate as well, and it helped that I was working at my home school hospital where people were very understanding. However, I certainly had to take on a little bit more responsibility. It helped that attendings and residents were also learning with me since COVID-19 is so new. I didn’t feel like I was behind on anything, and there was a lot of relying on medical intuition.
What is it like to be on the front lines during a pandemic?
The protocols in the hospital changed a lot with the pandemic. We couldn’t wear our scrubs to work. When we stepped into the hospital, there was a row of tables where you sanitized, got a new mask, and changed into new scrubs. We wore a mask all day with the presumption that everyone who was not tested had coronavirus. I made it a point to carry very little with me, bringing only my pager, pen, license, and credit card. As I live with my grandparents, I decided to rent a place to stay isolated and keep them safe. When I came home every day, the first thing I did was shower. The whole experience was surreal at first, but you get used to it. Aside from this, I noticed that things in the hospital moved a little slower due to the pandemic. The rapid response team usually comes right away after the code is called, with different medical professionals rushing into the room. However, with the pandemic, the neurologist had to do televisits instead of actually being there, though I didn’t see any adverse outcomes from this.
Shoutout to the nurses! They were the ones going into patient rooms everyday, they’re real heroes.
How is the reality of working as a doctor different from what you learned in school?
In med school, my responsibilities were to look at labs, talk to the nurses, and write notes, while only carrying one patient. However, as a doctor, I had a lot more patients and the care we gave and decisions we made looked a little different. For example, I had a patient who was incapacitated and needed a tracheostomy, which is basically a hole in the neck to help with breathing. We talked to the family on the phone, and they said that the patient probably would not want to have one done so we were only able to provide comfort measures instead of doing procedures. Thankfully, we were able to let the family come see the patient. That was one of the things that changed the most from med school to working as a doctor -- I had a lot more contact with the patients' families, calling them once or twice every day. Working in such an isolated environment, this contact was very gratifying but it was also tough. It was hard to communicate by phone with family members when someone’s not doing well - especially so since most people were not able to visit loved ones.
Do you have any specific advice to give to the community during this time?
First of all, I want to say thank you to the community for engaging in social distancing and putting their trust in us. Healthcare workers put themselves on a pedestal sometimes but they are just doing their jobs, and are really fortunate to get paid. Other people are making sacrifices every day too. I really want to thank essential workers like grocery store workers and transportation workers -- you are really the heroes. EMTs are also incredible and I wish that they were paid more.
Finally, I just want to say that human beings tend to push each other away in times of crisis, but I really urge you to come together instead. Instead of social distancing, we should be physical distancing, but standing in social solidarity.