Recent grads enter medical field eager to help fight COVID-19

Ariana Arredondo

Sitting in his kitchen, Juan Resendez cried tears of joy. He shifted his eyes toward the Zoom call, where 48 of his classmates were shouting with excitement. 

In lieu of receiving letters with their residency program matches, Resendez and the rest of the 2020 Dell Medical School graduates discovered what programs they’d be attending over email. To celebrate, they joined a Zoom call and opened their letters together at 11 a.m. on March 20.

Now, four months later, Resendez and other recent graduates around the country are joining the front lines as they begin working in hospitals and labs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I'm excited to be able to contribute,” said Resendez, who matched to the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Southern California. “These are times when all hands are needed on deck, so I'm super excited to be able to offer my help.” 

Before starting residency, Resendez volunteered at Dell Medical School, helping with COVID-19 contact tracing and checking people who entered the building for symptoms. 

Another student on the Zoom call was Francisco Barrios, who was matched to the Dell Medical School’s Internal Medicine Residency program. 

Barrios primarily works at the Southeast Health and Wellness center that treats both COVID-19 positive and negative patients. Barrios originally was on a team assigned to care for patients without the virus, but after two weeks, his group was reassigned to begin caring for COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms.

Although the center is in a different building than the hospital, he’s still seen glimpses of the changes they’ve made due to the pandemic. 

“(Before, you would) walk past another team or another specialist and then you would stop and have a curbside chat with them,” Barrios said. “Now the hospital's really emphasizing (that) everyone maintain their distance. … It feels more isolated.”

Barrios said the experience has altered his perception of the pandemic, as he is now seeing the effects first hand. On July 19, the Austin American-Statesman reported 480 COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Travis County.

“Hearing the numbers … and then actually seeing it happen in the hospital, and actually putting faces with all the numbers … it's very eye opening,” Barrios said. 

Resendez, who works in Los Angeles County, doesn’t work with COVID-19 patients, but he still worries about contracting the virus in the emergency room and infecting others. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were 2,834 COVID-19 positive patients hospitalized in L.A. County as of Monday.

“You hear so many cases of asymptomatic carriers so definitely it's a little nerve-racking (to) go into work and constantly (have) to worry about becoming exposed,” Resendez said.

Yajie Zhang graduated from UT with a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences in the spring. In April, she began working remotely for a New York-based pharmaceutical company to help create a treatment for COVID-19. 

She moved from Austin to New York in early July and was quarantined for two weeks due to a New York policy and her sense of responsibility to help prevent the spread of the virus. This week, Zhang will finally join her team to begin working in the lab.

Zhang, Barrios and Resendez are joining others who have been on the front lines of the pandemic for months. 

“I know the people are working so hard like our group at (the pharmaceutical company),” Zhang said. “They work … over 12 hours a day even sometimes … to get the work done as fast as possible.”

Though they’re all working long hours, Resendez said he’s eager to contribute. 

“I've really enjoyed it,” Resendez said. “I've just been so excited at the end of the 12-hour day to go back to work the next day.”