The COVID-19 pandemic has been exhausting for the world’s health care workers, who have spent the last year-plus putting their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe and healthy. Now, their tireless efforts are inspiring a new generation to join their ranks: applications to U.S. medical schools shot up nearly 20% in fall 2021, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Individual schools are reporting similar spikes—New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing saw a 33% increase in applications this year over the previous year, for instance.
To learn more about the people who will shape the future of medicine, TIME spoke with current and incoming medical and public health students who were influenced by the pandemic to pursue their chosen career. Many were personally affected—some lost loved ones, while others worked on the front lines. Their stories have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Navi Johal, 32
Johal, a former combat medic in the U.S. Army, recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in nursing from Rory Meyers College of Nursing at New York University. His pandemic experience drove him to pursue a career in critical care.
Coming from combat medicine, whenever somebody asked me, my first career choice was always emergency medicine. Everyone tells me that I work very well under stress, in high-speed environments. But because of the pandemic, I truly did find my calling.
When my classes went remote, I was working as an EMT in Jersey City. My sister and a lot of my friends are nurses; we became a little bubble. When my grandfather had a stroke related to COVID, I wasn’t able to go to my parents’ house, but I was still with my family on the phone. After he got sick, it made my work a little more personal.
When I had the opportunity during my training to actually go into an Intensive Care Unit (ICU), I realized critical care nurses, day in and day out, make sure the patient stays alive. Everybody talks about the number of cases, the number of deaths, the number of ER visits for COVID. But nobody talks about the recovery. Most people don’t see the work—almost the love—critical care nurses put in for their patient. The families aren’t really allowed to visit COVID ICU patients. Critical care nurses are usually the source of information, the person that the wife calls to check on a husband: how is he doing this morning?
When I go to work at the ICU, it doesn’t feel like going to a job anymore. I’ve seen patients who were comatose from COVID-related things for two, three months suddenly wake up, and the joy they have, the newfound hope in life. And that pure happiness in the eyes of their family members, when they finally do wake up, or open their eyes, because you really don’t know if they’re ever going to. My experience made me realize that in school, they teach you the symptoms, the signs, the medications, but they don’t really teach you that a patient isn’t just an illness—a patient has a life and a family, and critical care allows nurses to tailor their care for each individual patient.
Inna Blyakhman, 31
Blyakhman, a fourth-year medical student at University of California, San Diego, had a particularly harrowing winter: both of her parents were hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 in December. Her mother, who was intubated twice and suffered a heart attack and multiple strokes, wasn’t discharged until early April. The experience, she says, will forever change how she approaches her work.
At first, I was captivated by the virology and epidemiology of the pandemic, but these were human lives, and ultimately those of my family.
I took my father to a top local hospital, and left him waiting outside, thinking they were going to take him in. But they didn’t. I stormed down there and stayed with him for the rest of the night. He’s 70 years old, has COVID pneumonia, he’s shaking and freezing. I caught myself yelling at people because they didn’t bring him a blanket. I felt bad about that, but you feel this intense need to advocate for your parents; all this rational civility goes out the window. One kind emergency room resident got him admitted.
My mom, who’s 67, didn’t have as many risk factors as my dad, so it was kind of unexpected that she did so poorly. I started to develop this fear of going to sleep, because every morning there would be bad news. Time blurs, it’s all-consuming. You’re just waiting by the phone to get an update from someone from the medical team.
For my patients moving forward, I want to be able to call their families at a consistent time every day. If you don’t know when someone’s going to call, it becomes almost unbearable to get through the day. I also learned that hope is what makes it bearable at all. I wanted to feel like the team didn’t give up on my mom; I felt like it was her only possibility of recovering when her odds were already so low. My mom wanted to have full code status [which would give physicians permission to resuscitate her]. When the team tried to push back against the code status change more aggressively, that’s when I started to feel like the team lost faith in her recovery. That was very hard for me and my family.
A lot of physicians want to feel like they prepared the family, that it’s their job to let the family know things aren’t going well, and it would be unethical if they gave patients and their families false hope. But in cases where that’s not so-clear cut, physicians should know that the family has the best understanding of the patient’s wishes—and that should be trusted.
My experience will make me less scared to advocate for my own patients someday, and it helped me understand how hard it is for caregivers. I also learned it’s really important to have family there; it’s more important when resources are strapped, like in a pandemic, when people are rotating all the time. Families are part of who you’re caring for, and they end up helping the patient.
Koushik Paul, 29
Paul is an incoming medical school student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus. His father died of COVID-19 in Bangladesh in August, four days before Paul submitted his medical school application.
My father took his last breath 20 minutes away from the nearest facility with a ventilator while I was on a video call instructing my relatives and friends to do CPR. I don’t think I was able to be there for my dad to the extent that he was able to be there for me, and I just felt the responsibility to be there for other people; I didn’t want other families to go through what mine went through. I decided to fundraise, write grants, and set up a drive-through COVID testing clinic here in Minnesota. And as opioid overdoses really took over in the Native community where I volunteer, I started doing youth-led CPR sessions, where we also distributed Narcan.
During the pandemic, I realized the importance of culturally responsive community engagement. The Bangladeshi community in Minnesota faced not only the local but also the global impact because they have families overseas that they’re worried about. They’re also victims of misinformation, about masks, about social distancing, the denial of COVID being real. In addition to navigating COVID, there aren’t many providers coming from backgrounds such as mine where they had to deal with socio-cultural barriers, inter-generational poverty, and so on. It’s so hard to navigate all the challenges and get to a point where you apply to med school.
I was contemplating deferring my med school acceptance for a year. But I feel very strongly about going into medicine and starting right now. Especially since I’m also interested in serving underserved communities—that comes with a bigger sense of responsibility and obligation. The sooner I graduate from the program and complete my training, the sooner I get to contribute. The pandemic really sharpened my focus. Every morning, I remind myself why I’m doing this, who I serve and how their wellbeing depends on every step I take. Everything I do is for someone’s family member and their community’s collective wellbeing.
Prashanth Balaraman, 21
Balaraman, a graduating undergraduate studying public health at Tulane University, decided to work as an EMT in New Orleans for a year before pursuing medical school.
In March, the university completely shut down, and I went back home to Hawaii. On the fourth or fifth day, I get a phone call, and it’s a New Orleans Emergency Medical Services lieutenant calling to say they’re really short staffed and hit hard by the pandemic. They decided to kickstart a program where volunteers were chosen to help out on the ambulances, to take some of the burden away from the full-time employees. For myself, it was an instantaneous, ‘yes, of course.’ The hard part was convincing my parents!
They rushed us through basic training, and then we were out in the city, taking calls, talking to patients, the majority of whom had COVID. We had no idea whether we’d get sick. That unknown was a little terrifying. But we had an innate sense of purpose of why we were there. I realized I really do want to do this as a physician; I know that I have it in my heart to sacrifice my own well-being for the benefit of others.
I also learned EMS is unique in the opportunity you have to play a role in people’s lives. I loved that aspect so much, I wanted to stay in it a little longer. You bridge the gap between the outside world and the health care system. New Orleans is a very sick city and the inequality was really visible in my work in the EMS, especially during the pandemic.
Working during the pandemic made me more empathetic. I’ve come to understand that patients remember every little thing that you do. I can’t necessarily remember every single patient, but I know I was the best that I could be for them, not only because of what I did for them medically, but just what I did for them as a person—to reassure them, maybe just give him a little touch on the shoulder, just a small gesture. I felt that if I lost touch with that side of myself, then that’s when I’d know this job wasn’t for me.
Amanda Finney, 22
Finney, originally from Delaware, graduated this May from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health after reflecting on her pandemic experience.
I was considering maybe working on a tropical disease, thinking I’d get to travel to other countries. But having seen how the pandemic has played out, I realized there’s a lot of work to be done in the U.S. I feel frustrated, but now is the time for good leadership. When we do good work here, those effects often trickle down to every country that’s being affected by any given disease.
Going through a pandemic in real time was great for my understanding of what public health is. It was partly watching interviews on TV with epidemiologists, and partly problem-solving for a pandemic myself. The question of “how do you stop an infectious disease?” was not something I could even attempt to answer beforehand. The human aspects of it—like how it affects the population—it isn’t something you always get when you’re studying from a plain science perspective. In life, we’re just so used to—if you make a mistake, only you and a couple other people usually feel the consequences. But in a pandemic, you as an individual can be trying your best to do everything right, but other people also can put you in jeopardy.
My whole family was exposed to COVID around Thanksgiving, including my grandpa. I reaffirmed everything they should do—please don’t leave at all, wait four or five days to get tested. It was a hard time. There wasn’t great centralized COVID information available, especially as things were quickly changing. I’m very comfortable with that kind of scientific messaging, but it’s hard for others. Dr. [Anthony] Fauci has been great. He’s been a central voice, a very trustworthy voice. Science can get very political, and I learned from him that it’s really important to be empathetic.