Ava Karimi wanted to study medicine for as long as she can remember. But while growing up in Iran, she couldn’t because of her religion.
“I actually couldn’t go to university,” she said. “It was basically more like a dream than a reality.”
When she was 18, her family moved to Dallas and that dream became more tangible. Karimi started volunteering at hospitals and the more she did, she says, the more it felt like a calling. She began looking into different schools and ultimately chose UT’s Dell Medical School – becoming one of the 50 students in its inaugural class. She says it was a privilege to be a part of this first group of med students, who are set to graduate May 21.
“Thinking about it, I get very emotional,” Karimi said. “I remember the first day that we all came to our medical school, we were basically the first 50 people just walking around and we felt like we owned school – like it’s our school.”
Then came four long – exhausting – years. But, she says, one thing kept her going.
“I’d imagine myself at my graduation – thinking about this milestone to celebrate the completion of all these years of learning,” she said. “Thinking about embarking on that new chapter as a physician.”
Karimi was so close; graduation was only a couple months away when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Now, it’s like a new reality,” she said. “It’s completely different than what I ever imagined.”
Dell Med has been in the making for more than a decade. Its timeline is filled with many milestones: There’s the day Travis County voters agreed to raise taxes to pay for the school. The day the teaching hospital opened. The day the school earned full accreditation.
Dr. Beth Nelson, the associate dean of undergraduate medical education, was there through it all.
“We were all really seeing [graduation] as the goal post that we were going to run across in concert with the students,” she said. “There was a lot of anticipation and excitement. Then, obviously, COVID-19 hit and all things changed in almost a heartbeat.”
She says Dell Med had been monitoring and observing the coronavirus at a distance when it first popped up in Wuhan, China.
“Frankly, even those of us in health care [did not understand] what it would mean when it hit our front door,” she said.
In early March, Dell Med began putting plans in motion, just in case it had to move students to virtual learning. But reality hit much faster than expected. On March 13, the day before spring break, UT Austin officials announced they were going to shut down the campus and told Dell Med to do the same. Nelson says the news sparked a lot of confusion about what to do and where to go.
“Students had already gone into the hospital for their clinical rotations that day – then they were being called and told ‘everyone must go home,’” she said. “That was quite a shock to the system.”
Medical students must complete hands-on, clinical work to graduate. This means they rotate through different areas of a hospital, such as surgery, pediatrics and OB-GYN units. But the Association of American Medical Colleges recommended all students be pulled from these clinical rotations because of safety concerns. Hospitals were struggling to get enough personal protective equipment for doctors, let alone med students.
This left half of Dell Med’s inaugural class scrambling to find another way to get those credits.
“They were very anxious and many of them didn’t want to leave on Friday the 13th, because they were afraid that their graduation possibilities would be put at risk," Nelson said.
Karimi was one of these students.
She was in Copenhagen in early March, halfway through a weekslong MBA course. It was there that she found out President Trump was going to restrict travel from Denmark and 25 other European countries. She was on a plane a couple hours later. On her way home, she got an email from UT telling her to self-isolate for two weeks. That’s when she learned she would not be able to return to her clinical rotations.
Karimi said it all happened so fast.
“Then comes this moment of uncertainty, knowing, ‘Oh, I only have these couple of months left. Will I be able to finish medical school in time?’” she said.
Dell Med was able to quickly create virtual courses that would help the students get their credits. Students used avatars instead of real patients – but at least it was something. One professor – Dr. Tim Mercer – even created an entirely new elective course, The COVID-19 Pandemic: Global Health on the Frontlines. It took him and his team only about a week to get it ready. The class focused on things like the principles of public health and the history of pandemics. It even gave students some of that real-world experience they were missing.
Karimi was part of the class' literature review team gathering data and information on death projections for UT’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. Some of her classmates worked within UT Health Austin’s contact tracing team.
Another fourth-year Dell Med student, Amber Baysinger, was also trying to make up for her lost clinical rotations by taking this elective. She says she helped contact people who were infected with COVID-19 in the Austin area.
“We collect information on all of the people that they contacted while they were in their infectious period,” she said. “Then we use that information to call those people, and then assess whether or not those people need to get tested or be in quarantine or isolation.”
Baysinger says this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she’s glad to play a part.
“I feel like by being able to be on this team, I’m able to contribute a little bit,” she said. “It feels really good to know that I’m helping to make a difference.”
On May 21, Dell Med will graduate a group of new doctors, launching them head-first into a global pandemic. For Karimi, the thought of graduating fueled her for so long. But COVID-19 has shattered all the pomp and circumstance of that day – and left her and her classmates with a sobering reality.
“I now have a better understanding of what I signed up for,” she said. “What I can tell you is, I’m definitely more ready now than I was a month ago.”
Karimi begins her residency in internal medicine at Dell Med in July and says she’s not sure what to expect. But she chose to go to medical school to help people – so that’s what she’ll do.
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