COVID-19 Canada | CTV News | Coronavirus
Medical students volunteer on the pandemic front lines after classes cancelled
TORONTO -- When the pandemic hit, medical classes in Canada were suspended and students were pulled from hospitals and doctors’ offices, leaving them stranded.
While some universities in the U.S. and Europe graduated medical students early to join the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, Canadian medical students had to search for other ways to help.
Ajay Shah, a 23-year-old medical student, was one of hundreds of medical students who mobilized to volunteer on the front lines.
He spent seven weeks at the heart of the crisis: a long-term care home in Toronto.
“I remember constantly worrying that I was going to get COVID and become very sick,” he told CTV News.
It wasn’t an unjustified fear -- most of the residents in Shah’s ward had tested positive for COVID-19.
“It became very evident that we needed all hands on deck,” he said. “I was changing soiled (diapers), I was feeding COVID patients, a lot of them who were actively coughing.”
Despite his studies, he said he felt totally unprepared.
"Because I'm 20-something (and) pretty healthy, I felt I was just kind of sent into the most COVID-positive rooms and left to fend for myself.”
He was also shocked by the working conditions. The home he was working at had only one personal support worker for an entire unit of around 30 patients, he said.
“She'd been working every day for close to a month with very little PPE and very little support,” Shah added.
Long-term care homes quickly became a source of concern after the pandemic began to overtake Canada. Outbreaks spread rapidly inside these facilities and family members and staff alleged that many were not implementing proper physical distancing between patients and healthy residents, and were even mistreating residents. After the Canadian Armed Forces were called in to assist in the crisis due to a shortage of staffing, they released an explosive report detailing disturbing conditions in five Ontario care homes.
The report, released in late May, described staff sharing limited PPE, residents calling out for help for upwards of 30 minutes with no response, staff force-feeding residents and staff going between healthy and sick patients without changing their PPE.
Following the release of the report, Ontario’s minister of long-term care, Merrilee Fullerton, revealed that the province had been experiencing severe shortages in staffing within nursing homes well before the pandemic.
In the care home Shah volunteered at, 18 residents died in total, two of them while he was working.
“The situation was bad in hospitals, but seeing the situation in long-term care was a huge eye-opener,” he said.
Shah is far from the only medical student to have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. Students across the country who've had their studies interrupted are being exposed to unexpected life lessons.
Jennifer Ham, a student at the University of British Columbia, said it made her appreciate medicine more.
“There’s many physicians and doctors who have vulnerable people at home, but they’re still going in and helping other people and that’s kind of why I wanted to go into medicine in the first place,” she said.
As for Shah, he’s now in limbo while he waits for school to restart, but his time volunteering in a long-term care has changed him for good.
"I think I have a lot more appreciation for life,” he said.
Hospital rotations for students are expected to resume across the country in early July, but there's still uncertainty what medical school will look like in the fall, as most universities are planning to rely largely on online classes.