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A series on the omicron surge's impact on Greater Peoria, particularly healthcare workers. This series is running the week of Jan. 18, 2022.

Medical students in Peoria begin their careers at a daunting moment, as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on

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University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria
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Third-year UICOMP medical students participated in a labor and delivery simulation at the OSF Innovation Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center in December 2021.

Many jobs shifted to work-from-home or hybrid-style after the pandemic hit. But there are some jobs that simply can't be done from home — and that includes most of the field of medicine.

However, the study and pursuit of a career as a health care professional has transformed for students over the last two years. And with so many health care professionals experiencing severe burnout, students in Peoria have a lot to consider as they continue their education for a career filled with so much unpredictability.

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Bradley University
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Jessica Clark is the dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University.

Jessica Clark is the dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University. Clark says the uncertainty that a lot of individuals in medicine are facing is adding a whole new level to already existing stressors for both students and professionals.

"I think the ever changing day to day has been even more difficult on students to allow for more flexibility and the ability to pivot and adapt," said Clark. "Because on top of their daily functions, and daily stressors of students, and then the variants now that are coming, we're having to navigate and deal with those variants a little bit differently, what their preparation has been in the clinical settings, really, has been one of adaptation and flexibility, because even the hospitals are struggling sometimes to really know what each day or how each day is going to look differently."

Jamie Blue is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria. The pandemic has covered most of her time in medical school. Blue is a part of a mentorship program, and says her peers have been experiencing a lack of connectivity and communication with other students.

"I'm a mentor to some of the first-year students. And when they entered medical school, half of the first year was basically remote in their own homes. And so as I was mentoring, these individuals, they were like, 'It's hard because it's not really a shared experience. I'm having to study so much more and try to find more efficient ways to study but I don't really have anyone to bounce ideas off of in medical school,'" she said.

"So much is happening so fast, and one day is never like the other. And so it's helpful to be able to ask a friend, did this happen to you too? How did you study for that. And there just wasn't that same sort of support you're able to give your peers."

Blue also said that students have not had the chance to explore different medical tracks and specialties like in years past, leaving them a bit unsure of where their passions might lie.

"I think career exploration early on in medical school has been severely limited also, when you're trying to find what specialty you want," Blue said. "A lot of the clubs are not able to meet in person, and one of the big draws, I think, to different specialties was they would have Skills Nights where you would meet up in person with the attendings and the residents. And it was meant to teach you how to suture and things like that. But it was also a chance to (learn), what's your life like as this type of doctor or, you know, what does residency look like if I choose this specialty?"

Laura Jorgenson graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria in the spring 2021. She is now a part of the residency program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, going into diagnostic radiology. Jorgenson said the transition process from medical student to intern resident in times such as these have been daunting and unlike what she could have imagined.

However, she said she is thrilled that burnout and wellness are beginning to get talked about more and more in the field of medicine as a result. In addition to the push for healthcare workers to care more about their own personal well-being, Jorgenson talks about a wellness course offered at the College of Medicine.

"For senior medical residents, they can take two weeks of a wellness rotation, where they have a set curriculum of different modality of practicing wellness that includes writing, reading, and responding and includes sharing wellness with others," Jorgenson said.

"It's one of the things that I learned, actually, from compassion training that I did at the medical school. It's really been in the last two to three years that wellness has become embedded in medical school and resident culture, because it can be stressful. And I think learning how to manage that stress is a very important skill that is going to help prevent us from burnout or at least mitigate burnout."

Jorgenson said that the overall communication on what wellness and practice of good mental health look like for each person has been exceptionally helpful and encouraging during these times.

"I like this component of sharing your wellness with others, because not everybody is as well as the next person all the time. It's a spectrum. Wellness is not the same thing for any one person," she said. "And I think it's important to recognize that our colleagues can be more or less well at any given time, but that one thing I can do is share a space or help to create a space where I if I am capable in that time sharing wellness, that I do that, or sharing a state of compassion for my colleague who's stressed just like I would my patient."

Jessica Clark at the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley also said she is shocked at the number of students still eager to pursue medicine, even after seeing the fatigue that is rampant in the field.

"It's been very surprising to me as an administrator and a nurse myself, because you would think in times of peril, in times of added stress that individual students would shy away from healthcare degrees, we're seeing the exact opposite," Clark said. "And so we've had increased enrollment, we've had increased desire for students to come into the healthcare majors. And I think that's because ultimately, the students that are here and ultimately that want to go into health care have just this huge desire to help."

Laura Jorgenson is in agreement with Clark, as she feels that her role has been the most challenging, physically and mentally, yet the most fulfilling.

I think a lot of us could probably relate to, like mask fatigue and not wanting to wear a mask. But I'm the one who gets to take care of people in the hospital. And even if it seems strange sometimes or if I'm tired of it, it honestly never even crosses my mind to do anything less than what I do. Because it's just where my passion is," Jorgenson said.

"It's wanting to see my patients get better and wanting to stay healthy. In order to do that. I was actually going to get a COVID test because I had a COVID exposure. And I was driving there thinking like 'man, I don't think there's going to be a harder time in my life than right now. And I cannot imagine not doing what I'm doing.'"

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