March 2020. Schriebl is spending this friday night at her parents’ house in Brunssum, Limburg. She doesn’t see them nearly as much as usual. She’s doing her clinical rotations, which means she is spending a lot of time in the hospital, so she’s being very cautious. She isn’t afraid of getting COVID-19 herself, but she doesn’t want to infect anyone with the virus.
On Sunday evening, while visiting a friend, Schriebl develops a headache and feels hot. She thinks nothing of it; they’d lit the fireplace and something had gone wrong. Even so, she calls in sick for her first week of volunteering at the hospital. “That Monday evening, my sense of taste was off. On Tuesday, I couldn’t taste anything anymore. At the time, people were still debating whether this was a symptom of COVID-19, and I didn’t have a cold or a fever. The hospital said I didn’t need to get tested.”
On Thursday, she receives a message from her 59-year-old father. He is very ill. “I’d never seen him like that. He had a cough, a temperature, no appetite and, above all, he was extremely tired. He spent whole days in bed. Sometimes he seemed to be doing better, but then his condition would change again the next day. It was impossible to tell whether he was actually getting better.”
Schriebl regularly listens to her father’s lungs, which sound normal. It takes him three weeks to recover. “I felt very guilty, but I comforted myself with the thought that he had no medical history and didn’t have symptoms of shortness of breath. My mother didn’t have any symptoms, even though they’d slept in the same bed. It’s a strange virus.”
Schriebl had just completed her ‘Mother and Child’ rotation in Helmond, Noord-Brabant, when the first COVID-19 restrictions were introduced on 15 March. She was supposed to start her ‘Ear Nose Throat’ rotation in Maastricht the following week. It was cancelled: all medical students had to leave the hospital to save equipment and because regular health services were being postponed. Schriebl went from working fifty hours per week in Helmond to working zero hours. “It was like falling into a black hole. I suddenly had all this free time.” She filled some of it with her side job as a data analyst at Zuyderland Hospital. But she had a lot of time to think. When would they start again? And how? Would her studies be delayed?
And then, at the end of March, all medical students received a digital call for volunteers from Maastricht University Medical Centre+. “Of course I’ll help”, Schriebl immediately thought. She started working two to three days per week, primarily as a medical scribe: “I recorded patient data. When COVID-19 patients were admitted, I described their medical history, the medications they were on and their symptoms. We also kept a daily record of what the doctors discussed with their patients. It significantly reduced their work pressure.”
It was a good experience, says Schriebl. She didn’t just learn a lot about being a doctor, but also about herself. “How do you respond in a crisis situation? You can’t know that in advance. I’m confident that I will be fine when I’m a doctor myself next year. I think the medical students who didn't do this missed out on something.”
Although she didn’t see it with her own eyes while working in the hospital, she heard from others how dire the situation was. “Patients went from ‘conscious’ to ‘deceased’ within three hours.” You would expect the atmosphere to be tense and anxious, but Schriebl mostly recalls a strong sense of solidarity.
That feeling would disappear the second she got home from work. The loneliness, especially during the first wave, was the worst part of 2020 for her. She hated spending days alone in her studio flat. “I don’t have the patience to just sit and watch Netflix or television. I felt so trapped and alone.” She was very apprehensive when the second wave hit. “I didn’t want to be home alone again. I regularly met up with a friend in Maastricht. Apart from her, I didn’t see anyone else outside of work. Having a partner during this time would’ve made a big difference. I missed that. Although my friends say they sometimes can’t stand their boyfriends anymore after being home together for days on end, ha ha.”
At the same time, Schriebl felt like she wasn’t in this alone. This was one of the positive things about 2020 for her. “It’s a cliché, but I’ve come to appreciate my friends and family a lot more. I also tell them more often that I’m happy with them in my life and that I appreciate them. I loved going for walks with my friend, for example. And I’ve never seen as much of Maastricht as I have in the past year.”
Hips, ankles, knees and feet
Clinical rotations started again in mid-June. So far, the pandemic has delayed Schriebl’s studies by six weeks. “I’m currently doing my research internship. After that, I still have two clinical rotations and one last big internship to complete.” If all goes according to plan, she will graduate in early August. The COVID-19 pandemic has had no influence on her choice of specialty. She wants to become an orthopaedic surgeon and work on hips, ankles, knees and feet. “Oh, and spines. I like those, too.”