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4th year Oxford Medical School student Alex Grassam-Rowe’s writes on his admiration and respect for colleagues and others pulling together in the fight against COVID-19.

Emergency Department at the John Radcliffe Hospital

There were nervous discussions amongst us medics on placement where the first UK COVID-19 death was. Shortly after, normality gave way to the surreal.

A foundation doctor, barely a few years older than me, calmly told us where on the ward to not go as they were COVID ‘hot zones’. The other student and I shot each other looks of surprise. When I then attended the talk from the hospital Executive team, I was stunned further – the infamous management vs clinician dynamics had evaporated.

Overnight, we had become superfluous medical students on the frontline of a global pandemic. Us practising how to feel a tummy was redundant as our teachers were needed to treat those filling the ward. We all packed up, handed in our ID badges, and were bundled into shared cars. The security guard who I gave the ID badges to wished us luck back at the John Radcliffe, and I wished them luck here.

Upon return to Oxford, the collaborative spirit and bravery here impressed me greatly. Heeding our Division’s call for clinically trained staff, healthcare workers have returned to practice, and final year medical students joined in.

Within days our own community had begun the development of rapid and easy-to-use test kits, novel designs for ventilators, and vaccine trials – joining scientists across the globe helping to fight COVID.

As a fledgling ‘scientist’ I was used to certain timeframes – e.g. vaccines taking years, even decades, to get out. I know that through the dedication, mental effort, and hours of pipetting, our fantastic scientists are working tirelessly to reduce those timeframes to a matter of months to help protect those most vulnerable all around the globe.

Taken away from my placement and COVID hot spot wards, I’m instead sat typing this from my room in Oxford looking out over some hills. The disruption to my life is relatively minimal. SARS-CoV2 remains a concept; COVID another disease I now have to know the ins and outs of, but won’t know what it’s really like to treat someone with. This is now the responsibility and challenge facing our healthcare workers and scientists - our real-life heroes whom we owe so much.

And yet, I don’t feel helpless. Beyond those who can help on the ‘frontline’ in patient-facing roles, our wider community has risen to the challenge.

Medical Sciences students have been key in orchestrating community support networks, within the University and within Oxford – barriers of town and gown melting away. I have known heart scientists turn their hands to viral protein-drug interactions, medics turn to childcare, and I have seen our students, our SU, our Colleges, our Departments, our Divisions, our University, our wider community, have all come together. I hope that many years from now we can still recall the collaboration across all walks of life that helped see humanity through.

Whenever friends or family ask, I am proud to tell them with sincerity that work here in our Division is leading the fight for all of humanity. I have been struck by the courage, collaboration, and adaptability of healthcare workers around the world, and those supporting them. I can only hope my teachers, colleagues, and friends know how proud I am of them.

You are whom I envisioned when my younger self dreamt of becoming a doctor.