What We Trained For: Medical school class president speaks about moving forward during pandemic

Varun Menon, from Martinsburg, West Virginia, was president of the School of Medicine’s Class of 2020 and completed requirements for his M.D. degree in May. For him Vanderbilt is a family affair; the future physician’s father, Dr. Satish Menon, completed his anesthesiology residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the early 1990s.

As the campus braced itself to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 disease through a series of proactive measures in March, Varun Menon was asked to share some thoughts on his experience of being a medical student during the unprecedented outbreak. These are his words of reflection and encouragement.

“The [COVID-19] crisis … is an extraordinary opportunity for us to learn and contribute in a meaningful way,” says Dr. Varun Menon, MD’20. “Whatever we might confront in our future careers, this will be that formative experience for us and our generation.” (Vanderbilt University/Anne Rayner)

What reactions and responses have you heard from your class in light of the recent COVID-19 updates?

It’s a frustrating time, as you can imagine. Certainly, at the beginning, we did not know how severe this was going to be. I don’t think we really understood—because none of us has lived through anything like this—what measures needed to be taken to protect the public health. In the beginning we still had a nonchalant attitude, honestly, as a society and certainly as a class.

Initially, many of us thought the university was being a little too hasty in canceling what are (I think) irreplaceable events on our journey, including Match Day and our celebration of the Match as a school with the faculty. I’ll tell you, we waited our entire four years for this. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—for our families, for our friends, for everybody who loves us and supports us. This is it. This is that moment, and it’s been taken away from us.

During the past week, that sense of disappointment hasn’t gone away, but it certainly has been overshadowed by what we now realize is an imperative to act and to contribute in what is potentially going to be a once-in-a-century event.

The university announced today [March 25] that Commencement will be postponed until May 2021. What are your thoughts on this change?

This is what the moment demands. This is what we need to do to step up. Of course, it won’t be the same trying to do it next year. To be honest, I don’t know how many people will be able to come back during that time because of residency. It’s going to be tough for everybody, but it’s going to be extremely difficult for [the medical students].

With that being said, I think our class needs to have the trappings of that entire process happen formally at some point, and I think that should happen in May of next year. Graduation is something that has to be done in person. That’s the whole point of it. It has to be an event where you march onto the stage, and have as many members of the class there as possible. The hooding is a physical process. The taking of the oath—we can do it virtually, but it really should be taken together in front of people. It is a physical, in-person thing that needs to happen.

Our personal desire to enjoy and celebrate this unique and irreplaceable time in our lives and our careers—that desire has been replaced by a sense of duty and setting aside of our own wishes for the good of society and our patients. And all the things we were going to take in that oath at graduation, those are the kinds of principles we are thinking about right now as we prepare for new potential roles in this pandemic.

What do those roles look like for your class right now?

We’re being called to the duty of exemplifying the principles of science and public health to those around us, to younger medical students, to our patients, and then to society at large. We canceled our Match Day and celebrations. We’re trying to set the example of, “Hey, look at us; this is our celebration. This is the last celebration we have before we enter this very demanding profession, this very demanding training period. But we realize that we must put this aside for the better of society.” That is the best way we can contribute in our current role.

What words of encouragement would you offer to your fellow medical students in the midst of this crisis?

I would tell them: This is what you trained for. You think your career is going to go a certain way; you think that life is going to go a certain way; you think history might go a certain way. But at some point, there are these inflection points, and it’s turning out that this probably is going to be one. It is unreal to me, certainly, and I’m sure to many, many others, how quickly that has become apparent.

If anything, treat this moment with respect and dignity. Yes, understand that a crisis could be coming, but also understand that this is an extraordinary opportunity for us to learn and to contribute in a meaningful way. This will have an incredible impact on shaping the rest of our careers and how we respond to crises, whether it’s a pandemic or war or economic depression. Whatever we might confront in our future careers, this experience will be that formative experience for us and our generation.

In the future there will be a time to celebrate. There will be a time for us to honor our class and to honor our faculty, our administration, and all those who were part of making us who we are today. But it’s time to put those things on hold, because those things can always come again. It may not be the same, but we can always make them work again.

What we cannot replace is this critical time when it’s necessary to ensure we minimize the damage and the loss of life from this crisis.

Varun Menon was interviewed March 18 and 25 by Emma Mattson, a junior communication studies major in the College of Arts and Science. She is a communications writer for Vanderbilt’s Office of Health Sciences Education.