“All of our students have a personal story of how the pandemic impacted them as they completed their education here at UMKC,” said Mary Anne Jackson, M.D. ’78, dean of the UMKC School of Medicine. “Across our country, we all were forced to change not only the way we navigated our daily life but, within the School of Medicine, how we responded to support our students.”

Family first

As an M.D.-only graduate who followed a non-traditional route to medical school, Zach Randall, M.D. ’20, completed the program in December 2019. He wasn’t a premed student; rather he entered as an older student who was married with children. Although he feels lucky to have finished his studies ahead of the pandemic peak, he knew starting his residency in emergency medicine at Truman Medical Centers would still put him in the heart of the COVID crisis.

“For all the uncertainty that came with COVID at that time, to know I was going into an emergency department on the front lines of the pandemic — it was pretty scary to think about,” said Randall.

But he never faltered in his desire to pursue emergency medicine and certainly never felt that he was getting a bad rap. “A big idea that helped me through everything was just knowing that this is happening to everyone,” he said. “I made this decision. It’s happening regardless. So now it's time to learn how I was going to protect myself and my family.”

Graduating in the fall, Randall had a full three months before starting his residency to prepare for working in an emergency room during the pandemic and, in turn, prepare for the impact on his home life. 

Thankfully, he says, the support system at the School of Medicine remained strong. He reached out to current residents at Truman to find out what precautions they were taking, how they were dealing with the pandemic, and how they were feeling working in an emergency room environment.

All that knowledge helped put him at ease. It also helped to comfort his family support system — even if sometimes those assurances needed extra reinforcement. “My grandma in particular was very concerned,” he said. “A few times she asked, ‘Can’t you be in something like dermatology?’”

Now, Randall is getting into the rhythms of an ER department during the pandemic. “We simply assume every patient has COVID,” he said. “But the data is also clear: Masks work and that gives us all peace of mind that we can operate as normal and not be paralyzed by fear.”

He’s also learning more about his bedside manner and adapting techniques in the pandemic. The mask covering his face, as well as his patient’s, complicates their usual interaction. To make up for that, Randall puts more emphasis on the physical exam, being more deliberate and providing contextual information to his patient. “I’m hopefully helping to put my patient at ease by letting them know I’m doing a thorough job.”

And he has received some positive feedback he may not have heard pre-pandemic. “I’ve been told that I smile with my eyes.” he said. “So that helps.”

Unexpected audio-visual expert

For medical student Nikhil Havaldar, there was a give and take with the virtual residency recruitment experience. Though he could visit residency programs from the comfort of his own home, it did increase the importance of the logistics needed for nailing his interviews. In the early stages of this virtual world, Havaldar admits, he wasn’t putting a ton of thought into his Zoom camera work.

That all changed once residency season rolled around, as the residency specialty he was pursuing, urology, was particularly competitive. He hoped to stay local, and the only urology residency in town was at KU Medical Center.

Although Havaldar jokes that he may or may not have been in pajama pants for some of the interviews, he was all business in front of the camera.

“I probably spent 10-12 hours messing around with the background and getting the right lighting,” he said.

As many people have during the pandemic, Havaldar became his own IT expert and lighting technician. He watched webinars and even got on Reddit to read about how other medical students were perfecting their setups.

His roommate was also going through the residency recruitment process, so they teamed up to create a prime interview spot in their house. They ran ethernet cable, selected a backdrop color and even bought a ring light to optimize their camera lighting.

“I consider myself pretty savvy with consumer tech, but never somebody who was getting into producing or anything,” said Havaldar. “It was definitely a big adjustment.”

Their house and IT budget could accommodate only one interview location, so they had to share.

“If we both had interviews at the same time, it basically came down to rock-paper-scissors to see who had to go to the med school to get online for their interview,” he said.

For Havaldar, all the trials and tribulations were worth it, as his urology residency matched at KU Medical Center. And now, he is ready for the challenge.

“In urology, you’re able to make a really big impact with your patients and take ownership of their medical issues,” said Havaldar. “You get to work all over the medical spectrum — from lifestyle interventions to really advanced surgical options like robotic surgeries, which I think are some of the coolest things.”

Making the most of Match Day

Jacob Perera, a sixth-year medical student, said his Match Day may not have been what was expected when school started, but it will still be a bright spot when he looks back on his time at UMKC.

“When we started med school, we pictured celebrating Match Day as a group, taking pictures with everyone and their families,” he said. “How we adapted and overcame, I think it speaks volumes about the school and medical professionals in general.”

On Match Day, some of Perera’s school friends and families organized a small get-together to celebrate — making sure it was safe and shared with those that had already received the vaccine.

“Even this small gathering, after not being able to see my friends very often, it just makes it that much sweeter that we were able to get together and enjoy that celebration,” he said.

The process of just getting to Match Day presented several unexpected and unique challenges this year. “With limited in-person residency visits, it was even a challenge just getting a feel where you fit in within a residency,” said Perera.

Although a majority of his residency visits were virtual, he was able to travel to one of them: the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. To make that happen, he worked closely with his Education Team Coordinator, Krisana West, whom he credits for undertaking the herculean task of the schedule coordination required to visit Mayo. There also were myriad COVID protocols that had to be met, including even more coordination so he could quarantine at home for two weeks after returning. And all of that took place in fall 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

What helped motivate Perera during the pandemic times at school and through residency interviews was to keep the end in sight, to push toward his goal of wanting to be a doctor and wanting to help people.

“I was still able to be actively involved in patient care and get a full experience while I was finishing my time at UMKC and visiting Mayo,” said Perera. “It’s definitely not what we thought was going to happen, but overall I was just grateful for the opportunity to make those connections and confirm to myself that not only was this a specialty I wanted to pursue, but Mayo was where I wanted to continue the rest of my training.”

All that hard work paid off, as Perera landed his top-choice residency. And his drive and perseverance were shared by many within the school. Despite its being a year like no other, the students and the school as a whole stayed true to the mission of preparing the next generation of medical professionals to succeed and prosper.

Perera says he’s proud of his entire class and his classmates’ ability to adapt and overcome during such trying and unsure times. “Some of us may be younger than the average medical student,” he said, “but we are still mature and resilient and can overcome any challenges.”