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Newly minted doctors march toward front lines to battle coronavirus

University of Massachusetts Medical School graduates Shruthi Srinivas and Jacqueline Chipkin celebrated on their back deck with their neighbors, also medical school graduates.
University of Massachusetts Medical School graduates Shruthi Srinivas and Jacqueline Chipkin celebrated on their back deck with their neighbors, also medical school graduates.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Life has few and precious milestone moments.

High school graduation. Kneeling before the altar of marriage. The birth of a baby.

And, at noontime on Tuesday in Worcester, there was another unforgettable one: a virtual commencement ceremony for 135 medical students, newly minted doctors now ready to join the front lines in a battle against a deadly and historic pandemic — a battle no one signed up for.

They did not crowd into an auditorium. They did not sit in rows of chairs beneath a white tent on a wide green lawn. They did not toss their mortarboards en masse into chilly springtime air.

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No. They stood on front porches. They sat on living room couches. They hugged their spouses. And they kissed their children.

And then, separately, they donned their white coats as members of UMass Medical School’s class of 2020.

They became doctors. At the most urgent time in recent memory.

“Excitement is not the right word,’’ said Shruthi Srinivas, who grew up in Chelmsford and envisions her life as a pediatric surgeon. “I think it starts off with anxiety and nerves. Yes, we trained for this, but nobody’s truly trained for what’s going on.’’

Nobody. And, now, everybody in her class.

University of Massachusetts Medical School graduate Jacqueline Chipkin (far left) facetime with her sister and brother-in-law. Next to Chipkin is Shruthi Srinivas.
University of Massachusetts Medical School graduate Jacqueline Chipkin (far left) facetime with her sister and brother-in-law. Next to Chipkin is Shruthi Srinivas. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Srinivas gathered with a handful of friends on a neighborhood balcony as their medical degrees were conferred by the UMass Medical School chancellor, Dr. Michael F. Collins — two months earlier than planned.

“No one is going to say, ‘We’re going to find a cure,’ ’’ Srinivas, who turned 27 last week, told me. “But we’re going to do the best we can. This is a time when everybody needs to help people. It’s anxiety-producing. It’s scary. But we’re standing up. And we will help the best we can.’’

Collins said the decision to accelerate this year’s medical school commencement weighed on him heavily. Perhaps the bulging infection curve would significantly diminish by the time the school’s calendar had originally called for commencement in May.

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But then his students raised their hands. We’re ready, they told him.

“A number of them spoke to me in the weeks leading up to this decision,’’ Collins said. “They said: We’re ready to help. How can we help? I found that very inspiring. Many of them had beautiful vacations planned. All ruined. Now, they’re calling up the chancellor saying, ‘How can I be helpful?’

“We teach our students to go toward their patients, not to run from them.’’

And, so, that’s what they intend to do.

That’s what Kendra Lastowka is going to do. She’s 25, a graduate of Hanover High School’s class of 2012, and will now study to become an orthopedic surgeon, but for the next 90 days she will act as a medical intern, performing general care as needed probably at UMass in Worcester.

Lastowka, who watched Tuesday’s ceremony with her boyfriend and medical school classmate, Taylor Shortsleeve, said she tracked the coming epidemic from its origins in Wuhan, China, never anticipating its widespread and global spread.

“Part of being a doctor is going where you’re called,’’ she said. “I feel like my responsibility it to be able to use what I’ve learned during the past four years to be able to help people.

“I didn’t sign up for this. I’m nervous about my personal safety. They have to be able to give us masks or gloves and hopefully we’ll have that. I am worried about getting exposed. I’ve been distancing myself from my family.’’

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Patrick Lowe can’t distance himself from his. His son Jack is 5 months old. Lowe and his wife, Jacklyn, were married in 2017, envisioning a life in which social distancing and terrifying body counts were unthinkable.

He grew up in Northborough, working in the little grocery store and meat shop his parents owned. The oldest of four kids, he still goes back there to help out on holidays. Or at least he did.

Now, he’s waking up each day, reading the latest mortal tally, digesting the dreadful medical bulletins from his new career that will propel into emergency medicine.

“Patients were freaking out,’’ he said of his work at the medical center. “Parents were freaking out. The staff was in a frenzy about what type of isolation was needed. From the lead attending physician to the intern to people like myself — medical students — none of us knew the answer.

“There were moments of fear. But I never considered not doing what I had planned on doing. The fear was in the back of my mind. I hope my equipment is working properly.’’

Fatoumata Bah grew up in Worcester and is headed for Cornell for her medical residency. The 26-year-old said the memory of the hard work, the long nights of studying for exams will fade with time. Friendships forged at UMass will not.

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“So many people need help,’’ said Bah, who will work primarily in the operating room and the intensive care unit. “It’s scary. There’s so much unknown. It’s exciting to be on the front lines and to be able to help people. I have a cousin who’s a computer software guy. He’s working from home. There’s no working from home for me. This is my job. This is an historic time.’’

And, for a brief time on Tuesday, there were moments of much-needed celebration for the class of 2020. Reflections on the medical foundations that they worked so hard to build. A joint commitment to march together into medical battle.

In his remarks to the graduates — some of whom gathered remotely in small groups to mark the occasion — Collins told them to lean on their education. And each other.

He quoted from Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague.’’

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: There are sick people and they need curing.’’

That is now the task — the mission, the duty — of the class of 2020.

“With time,’’ Collins said, “you will tell your children and grandchildren that on the day you graduated from medical school, you were called into service to care for patients with a contagious disease for which there was no cure.

“You will go on to regale them with the discoveries that were made and how they are now safe because a vaccine and therapeutics were discovered. Tell those tales with equal parts of pride and humility, for our noble profession benefits most when we are humble in our achievements and modest with our accomplishments.’’

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None of the graduates paraded across the stage on Tuesday. But they were, via a video link, taking turns reading their new class oath.

“We aspire to be brave,’’ the classmates pledged, “triumphing over fear in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability, confident in our knowledge, abilities, and each other.’’

“Now,’’ the graduates concluded firmly, “we turn to our calling.’’


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.