Romail Gulzar spoke to Aukse Joana Vijeikyte, a foundation doctor who graduated and began working in medicine during the start of the pandemic. She tells us all about what it was like to be dropped in the deep end at the start of her career and the challenges she has faced working on a covid ward.
Supporting our doctors and front-line workers during the pandemic feels like an impossible task. How does one show appreciation for the sacrifice and risk faced day-in day-out by heroic doctors and nurses, and public servants? The challenge of working on the front-lines is understandably an incredibly tough one. Working late hours on busy, understaffed wards, in hot and uncomfortable PPE gear is not a pleasant time. This alongside the threat of becoming ill after contracting a dangerous, life-threatening virus, makes for an unenviable working environment.
One of the most taxing academic paths is arguably studying to become a doctor, at least in terms of the time spent in education. To then be thrust straight into the world of work during a pandemic without taking the time to acclimatise to this new career has to be tough. “I was at University for 6 years. It takes quite a long time when you’re studying to be a doctor,” said Aukse. “You make friends with people who have shorter degrees and they get out into the world of work and start making a living whilst you’re still in the library revising! It’s definitely worth the wait and it’s very rewarding. But you have to mature quite quickly. Some of the things you see from a young age during your training in medicine can be quite harrowing, however, I’ve been really humbled by the patients I’ve met over the years.
Because of the pandemic, we had to graduate early in April to help out. We had to voluntarily work as junior, junior, junior doctors, helping out on the wards and alleviating the pressures and providing any assistance we could. Of course, this had both pros and cons. It meant we could start working and earning a living earlier, which obviously is great. But there was no chance to destress following exams and years of studying. Many people in these fields take some time out after graduating, either on a long holiday or what is known as an elective. This is where you arrange an experience that tends to be a little bit different to what you did at university, either abroad or somewhere else in the UK. Some people help out in orphanages, get into a research role, or visit healthcare institutions in other countries to see how they operate differently to the UK. But of course, because of the need for staff due to the pandemic, this didn’t happen.”
Working in a role where you are in near constant contact with carriers of this horrible virus would be nerve-wracking for anyone. Doctors and nurses are human and can be fearful just like the rest of us. “There was a lot of fear, especially at the beginning when there was so much uncertainty about how Covid could affect people and spread,” said Aukse. “It was never something we studied in med-school because it wasn’t a well-known disease. Luckily there were a lot of great resources and communications from the hospitals to teach us how to manage Covid. On an individual basis, all the staff were inevitably worried about catching the virus themselves. By the time I started working, there was good PPE such as face masks, gloves and aprons, which we wear with every patient we see. This only negates the fear so much though, and many of us were still worried about catching it, and how it would affect us, or if we would pass it on to our housemates. Unfortunately there have been cases in the midlands and across the UK where healthcare workers have lost their lives to Covid. It’s tragic that whilst working to fight this virus and to protect others, they fell victim to it. That’s why campaigns such as Always In Our Thoughts are so needed, so that we have some way of honouring those people that have sacrificed so much.”
Not only is the virus a concern, there are other effects that lockdown has had on many of us. Mental health is a very important topic, and now more than ever, talking about our struggles with mental health and knowing when we need to ask for help after periods of stress and worry is pivotal to a healthy society. “During my time at med-school I struggled with my own mental health,” said Aukse. “A lot of medical students face issues like this, and I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage those that are having a hard time to seek help. That help is available, and can range from simply speaking to friends and family, to reaching out to professionals such as a counselor. Having my own journey with mental health issues, I feel like I’ve honed my empathy and gained more of an understanding of what colleagues and patients may be going through, and hopefully will allow me to better help them in any way that I can. Gaining new perspectives like this is very useful.”
Finding ways to cope during times such as these are important. Having an outlet, especially a creative one, can be very beneficial. Aukse has found a way of incorporating her own creativity into a helpful publication for foundation doctors similar to herself. “Lost in Foundation is a magazine by foundation doctors, for foundation doctors. It’s something that I am a co-founder of, and my committee of 12 are creating this magazine as a creative outlet for these recently graduated doctors. A foundation doctor can feel quite lost in this ocean of different medical fields. I felt that having a publication where people could speak about their shared experiences and their stories, whilst also sharing their creativity through art, comics, storytelling, crafts, anything! To have something to focus on has been really helpful to me too, and I’m very grateful to have this opportunity.”