Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: A Canadian’s perspective on studying medicine abroad during the pandemic

We are ready. And we are coming home.

We’ve written exams in the middle of the night, faced the threat of losing our medical degrees and spent the holidays far away from our families. But we are ready for new challenges.

We are Canadian medical students studying abroad and we have adapted to living life on the edge of our seats. We used to know what came next for us: electives, licensing exams, applications, interviews and then matching to jobs in Canada. But now any of those things can be and have been taken away at a moment’s notice.

On March 12 last year, the distant threat of COVID-19 became very real to medical students in Ireland. We were removed from clinical placement and moved online for the remainder of the school year. At first there was shock but then excitement. Excitement that we would be able to travel home early for summer and see our families sooner than anticipated. But that quickly turned to concern as the next few weeks rolled by.

As Canadians studying abroad (CSAs), our clinical placements in Canada (electives) are central to our ability to return and work in Canada. In March, our hopes of coming home plummeted like rocks in our stomachs as cancellation after cancellation of Canadian clinical placements arrived in our inboxes. Fortunately, we were able to fly home and see family sooner than we ever thought we would. For CSAs, family time is inherently more precious as it becomes a privilege rather than a given to see them. We cannot fly home at the drop of a hat to celebrate an engagement or mourn a loved one. 

The catch of going home meant we wrote our third-year final exams in the middle of the night because of time zone differences. Those in British Columbia were writing them as early as 2 a.m. while others in Ontario were writing them at 5 a.m. In addition to the unfortunate times, the exams were delivered in an online format unfamiliar to students, making medical school exams during the COVID-19 lockdown inherently more of a challenge.  

But a new worry loomed large in our minds when we returned for the fall semester – the threat of not qualifying for our medical degrees. CSAs are required to write a mandatory exam called the NAC OSCE, an in-person clinical exam in Canada. But returning for the exam would mean missing a minimum of a month of medical school to comply with isolation requirements. And missing that month would mean we would not have accumulated the necessary placement time to be awarded our medical degrees as stipulated by the Irish Medical Council.

The question then became: How do we simultaneously pass the NAC OSCE whilst obtaining our medical degree? We sacrifice our holidays home. We spent Christmas without our families in Ireland. After a total of eight weeks of isolation and over six weeks of lockdown in Ireland, missing any time with loved ones is a heavier burden than normal to bear. But we live in a beautiful, welcoming country. Irish families took in stranded Canadians for the holidays, other Canadians gathered together in isolation to celebrate Christmas. Everyone made the best of the situation, so no one was alone for the holidays. It was a beautiful thing to experience.

We are coming up on a year of COVID and we CSAs have overcome more challenges than we ever could have expected. But we are entering a profession where there are unexpected challenges each day; where the best laid plans and treatments can go awry. This year has prepared CSAs to be ready for these challenges. We have learned that our time is no longer our own. We have become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We know this year will continue to be unexpected and that it will continue to challenge us. But we are ready. And we are coming home.

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Abigail Roberts


Abigail Roberts is a final-year medical student from Ontario currently studying medicine at the University of Limerick in Ireland.

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