(Published originally by the Haverford Alumni Magazine)
When I enrolled at Haverford College, I was determined to carve my own path in political science, despite coming from a family of healthcare providers: My mother is an occupational therapist, and my father, formerly an infectious disease specialist, is a physician-scientist, now working for a biotech company developing novel cancer drugs. I never imagined that 10 years later I would find myself in medical school in the midst of a devastating global pandemic.
At Haverford, I treasured my classes on globalization, the American presidency, and “The Politics of Violence,” and appreciated the extracurricular flexibility my major offered. After graduation, I was fortunate to be hired by Bruce Agins ’75 at the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, where I worked to refine HIV treatment and prevention policy. There, I found myself drawn to the patients and physicians with whom we partnered. Seeing the important role of doctors in policymaking inspired me to reconsider a career in medicine. Two years later, after completing a postbaccalaureate premedical program, I enrolled at the University of Michigan Medical School.
Medical training is notoriously long, but my first year and a half moved swiftly. Then, in March of 2020, everything changed. I was rotating on a hematology-oncology ward when the first patient with COVID-19 was admitted. It was particularly alarming to take care of patients suffering from leukemia at the onset of the pandemic. Chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to even the normal bacteria of our skin. We were worried about what would happen if they were exposed to COVID-19.
COVID-19 cases increased quickly. Hospital staff grew anxious. We wore masks, disinfected computers, and avoided cramped team rooms. Three of my patients developed pneumonia and were tested for COVID-19. One patient’s blood pressure dropped dangerously low, and he needed to go to the intensive care unit. Just as we were moving him, I received an email: Students had to leave the hospital immediately.
My heart sank. My time working with patients had more than lived up to my expectations, but I could no longer care for them. I packed my bag, disinfected my laptop, and walked home. I watched from afar as the hospital filled up with COVID-19 patients. Rotations were postponed. National board exams were rescheduled, rotations at other institutions canceled. Medical students, accustomed to rigorous, carefully structured schedules, were left in limbo. Like the rest of the world, we were in an ever-lengthening period of demoralizing confusion and stasis.
But boredom and inactivity can lead to creativity. My fellow medical students and I, now homebound, found ways to indirectly care for patients and support the healthcare system. We sorted personal protective equipment to restock supplies. We conducted virtual visits for patients with diabetes and helped to discharge COVID-19 patients as they recovered. We watched with awe and respect as doctors, nurses, and hospital staff dove head-first into fighting the pandemic, regardless of the physical, emotional, and financial consequences.
During this time, I’ve reflected on the relationship between medicine and politics. I’ve come to see that my political science education at Haverford did indeed prepare me for a career as a physician. Healthcare systems are massive bureaucracies, trained to “stay out of the red.” Hospitals run on such a tight margin that small breaks in the supply chain can disrupt the system. Zip codes define who gets access to healthcare. The most marginalized communities in our country are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. The racial and economic disparities that fracture America are worsening. Society incentivizes profit over access to high-quality, affordable healthcare. Watching the U.S. government fail to marshal a national response to this crisis, I cannot help but think that more nurses, doctors, epidemiologists, and scientists need to become involved in politics. Overcoming this pandemic, and rebuilding our world with a healthier foundation, requires that we muster all of our scientific and political resources. As I move forward in my medical career, I am grateful that my atypical path to medicine has given me insight into the important interface between politics and healthcare, and I intend to further apply the lessons I learned at Haverford to help construct a better future.
Jacob Lowy is a third-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. He graduated from Haverford College in 2014 with a degree in Political Science and a focus in Latin American Politics and U.S. Public Policy. Upon graduating from Haverford, he worked as an assistant to the Medical Director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, where he helped to design and implement New York State’s “Ending the Epidemic” HIV treatment and prevention initiative. He attended the Goucher College Pre-medical Post-Baccalaureate Program in 2016-2017 and worked as a research assistant in the Johns Hopkins Department of Pediatrics and Centro Sol, Johns Hopkins’ Latino Health Center. When Jacob is not at the hospital, he enjoys long distance running, cooking, and reading presidential biographies.