Blog Viewer

Member Spotlight: Anesthesiology Hopeful Jared Sharza on How Working As an EMT During the Pandemic Made Him a Better Medical Student

The medical school years are tough by any standard. For @Jared Sharza, the COVID-19 pandemic put his academic training on pause at the exact moment his clinical rotations were set to begin. In this Member Spotlight, he shares how working as an EMT at the front lines of hard-hit New York State during the height of the pandemic has better prepared him for a career in medicine - potentially as an anesthesiologist specializing in critical care.

Your clinical rotations were disrupted last spring due to COVID, so you opted to work as an EMT instead. What was your experience on the front lines during the height of the pandemic in New York State, and how has that informed you as a medical student and a person?

It was mid-March when I got the email from my clinical site coordinator saying that rotations had been suspended, indefinitely. I made a near instant decision to head home and help on the frontlines. While driving home I kept thinking to myself, “I refuse to be sidelined.” I have been an active member with my hometown EMS agency, Canandaigua Emergency Squad (CES) for the past 7 years. I ascended the ranks by first volunteering, and eventually becoming certified as a New York State EMT where I was then hired, working on and off through medical school. Employing both my experiences as a medic along with my education as a third year medical student, I felt as if it were my duty to take a more active role in the fight against COVID.

I was also recruited to work in my local hospital in the ICU and the COVID unit. My time working on the frontlines was essentially split half between working as an EMT and half as a Patient Care Technician. The Human Resources department at the hospital referred to my situation as, “unchartered territory,” regarding the idea of hiring a third year medical student who also is a medic without any formal experience in the hospital setting. I was eventually hired to work in the ICU and COVID unit as a Patient Care Technician, where I provided aid the nurses in phlebotomy for labs, blood glucose monitoring, and attending to basic patient needs. As an added bonus, I was given permission to join the ICU attendings during rounds, where I was able to learn the dynamics of critical care, as well as, practice physical exam skills and participate in bed-side procedures. Each experience provided different lenses on the pandemic, but I invariably enjoyed being part of the entire continuity of care both pre- and during hospitalization.

Working as a medic and in the hospital during the height of COVID, as a medical student, allowed me to witness virtually every aspect of the virus. I witnessed the risk of exposure. I witnessed the anxiety and paranoia of accidentally tracking home the virus and changing in the garage. I witnessed the intubations and the ventilators. I witnessed the proning. I witnessed the imprint that an N-95 left after a few weeks. I witnessed the sweat and overheating while being fully gowned in PPE working on a patient for a prolonged period of time. I witnessed the wide-ranging spectrum of presenting illness. I witnessed the disgruntled and exhausted healthcare workers. I witnessed the virus run rampant in nursing homes within days. I witnessed the New York State COVID-19 Public Health Emergency EMS Cardiac Arrest Standards of Care. I witnessed the failed interventions. I witnessed frontline workers contracting COVID. I witnessed the Facetime and Zoom calls for families to speak with their loved ones, even in their final moments. I witnessed the frustration that frontline workers felt when hearing people say the pandemic wasn’t real or refusing to comply with guidelines and social restrictions. I witnessed COVID-19.

In spite of all the horrors that I had witnessed during the pandemic, positive moments also shined through. I experienced the morning yoga meditations on the ICU floors. I experienced gratitude and positive words of encouragement from patients. I experienced the unity and the support of our community. I experienced the camaraderie. I experienced holding the hands of many patients who were not able to verbally communicate. I experienced the continuity of care with patients that I had brought in to the hospital by ambulance and was fortunate enough to be on their care team throughout their hospitalization. I experienced conversations with patients after they had been extubated. I experienced being humbled not only as a medical student but also as a person by helping to clean patients. I experienced a side of medicine that I am not likely to experience as a resident or physician, but will ultimately be mindful of. I experienced the gratification of helping others in a medical capacity while in their most vulnerable states. I experienced the fusion of my medical education with my clinical skills, and opportunity out of tragedy.

Deciding to utilize my skills and experience to work instead of continuing my medical education with online clinical rotations is a decision that I would choose over and over again. My experience working during COVID only bolstered my desire to help others in a medical capacity.

It's often hard for students to balance clinical work with study time. Do you think of your early exposure to a real-world medical crisis as a gift in some ways, or do you wish your studies could have continued on a more traditional path?

I definitely think that my experience was a gift because I was able to play a meaningful role in a medical capacity on the frontlines during such a historic crisis. I was able to exercise my clinical skills as an EMT and in the hospital, while also fostering clinical education. While I did not earn any elective credits toward my formal medical degree requirement, I would not have passed up the opportunity during such an unprecedented time for a more traditional path.

With all of the Prometric testing centers closed for a few months during our clinical rotation suspension, I found myself to be more focused on my clinical work with EMS and in the hospital, rather than on the progression of my formal medical education and preparing for my shelf exams. Even still, there was ample time during my work schedule where I was able to,get some studying in. My mindset seemingly changed- I wasn’t studying for an exam, I was studying to possibly save someone’s life. It worked for me because I felt that having that extra fund of knowledge helped further my engagement during the experiences. For example, I was able to complete the online course, “Mechanical Ventilation for Covid-19,” by Harvard EdX.

What's drawing you to anesthesiology as a specialty? What other options are you currently considering (and is it much of a horse race)?

I find myself drawing a lot of parallels between anesthesiology and my experiences working in EMS. Working as an EMT, along with my clinical rotations, has allowed me to realize that I not only enjoy, but prefer having more hands-on care, especially in the acute setting. I think that, because of my tenure working as a medic, physiology and pharmacology comes intuitively to me. Working as a medic has allowed me to practice similar basic procedures. I’d like to specialize in a practice of medicine that allows me to not only do what I’m good at, but also what I enjoy, and I ultimately see that being anesthesiology, perhaps with a fellowship in critical care medicine and facilitating training opportunities for prehospital care providers to maintain my engagement within EMS.

I did excel on my surgery rotation, but I think it was also because of how hands-on of a specialty it is and how engaging my residents and attendings were with me. I do enjoy operating and the methodical approach to procedures themselves. I also enjoyed learning about managing floor patients. I enjoyed learning about every aspect of the operating room, including the perioperative anesthesia. However, I found myself to be unsure whether I wanted to pursue the life of a surgeon at the end of my three month general surgery rotation.

You've been active representing your medical program as a student social media ambassador. What do you foresee as the role of social media presence for the next generation of medical practitioners and their institutions?

I think that social media plays such a versatile role in today's age of entertainment outlets impacting society. Out of many options to speak on, I believe social media acts as a vehicle for promoting advocacy and inspiring education. I’ve been a long time fan of cardiothoracic/Critical Care Anesthesiologist and social media enthusiast, Dr. Rishi Kumar, MD, (@rishimd). He uses his platform to teach medical education and advocate for the overall improvement of our health systems, through the lens of a physician.

In a time where it’s popular to seek opinions regarding health on social media, I think it will be important for medical practitioners to use their education and voice to help disperse factually reliable information as we continue to strive in advocating for healthier communities, and to promote healthy lifestyles. Users on currently popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are also starting to popularize healthy diet/nutrition and lifestyles that I can see coinciding with the topic of preventive medicine. I’d imagine that integrating health & wellness with social media is going to become a popular outlet for the promotion of preventive and community health education.

What would you most like older physicians to understand about what it's like to be a medical student today? How do you think medical societies can best support the students in the educational pipeline?

Stress is an inherent vice of being a medical student. I believe that the reasons why it is a natural part of the process is similar for medical students now as it was for older physicians. Competitive specialties, limited spots in programs, the burden of loans to afford the hefty price tag that comes with the desire to help others, the rising national averages of board exams over time. This stress is significant because it seems like the process impedes and degrades the very reasons why medical students wanted to pursue medicine in the first place, and ultimately contributes to the systemic healthcare burnout.

Just because stressful factors have always existed in medical education, doesn’t necessarily mean that this tradition needs to be continued at the same extent. I think that the NBME is gradually starting to recognize that they play a large role in this and are beginning to make meaningful systemic changes, most recently changing Step 1 to pass/fail. COVID did, also, force the Step 2 CS exam to be decommissioned, allowing the board to re-evaluate the necessity of the exam.

I think that medical societies can contribute to supporting their students by advocating for research into cited factors of stress and promoting cost-benefit analysis across the board with medical education. Providing more opportunities for their students to engage in activities that will enhance their profiles such as research, clinical work experience, mentorship, and generalized networking will support students throughout the medical education pipeline.​

Jared Sharza is transitioning from his third to fourth year of medical school, rotating in the Greater Detroit area. He has been working in emergency medical services in various capacities for more than five years.

ASA Community Blog is published as a benefit for ASA members. The views expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributing writers only and do not necessarily represent the opinions of ASA.