CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa 'Match Day' scuttled by COVID-19

'It was disappointing'

Claire Emery-Wootton and Alex Foster (right) celebrate Alex's match day placement during Claire's shift at New Pioneer C
Claire Emery-Wootton and Alex Foster (right) celebrate Alex’s match day placement during Claire’s shift at New Pioneer Co-Op in Coralville on Friday, March 20, 2020. Foster, who will specialize in anesthesiology, has been placed at a health center at the University of Chicago, which was in the couple’s top three choices. The annual Match Day celebration at Carver College of Medicine was canceled due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Posing with four fellow medical students for a photo in an Iowa City home on Friday, Hillary O’Brien’s Apple watch just before 11 a.m. alerted her to a new email in her inbox.

“It came two minutes early,” O’Brien said. “We were all just kind of waiting with our phones.”

The small group’s makeshift “Match Day” celebration was not the usual gathering of hundreds in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. There was no tumbler of envelopes unveiling where — after four long years of late nights study sessions, early-morning classes, and clinical rotations — they would spend their residencies, launching their hard-fought careers as doctors.

There were no group hugs, professor handshakes, or celebratory dinners at hopping downtown bars and restaurants.

But the tiny virtual envelop that arrived in O’Brien’s email delivered good news nonetheless. She’ll be a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Oklahoma.

“That was my number one,” O’Brien, 30, said. “So I’m pretty happy with that.”

The friends did their best to replicate the rite of passage that typically caps the UI medical school journey — including the large black and gold map with pins symbolizing the reach and impact Hawkeye medical students have across the country.

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“I was the first one to get the email,” O’Brien told The Gazette. “Then everyone else was yelling for joy over their own results too.”

The five students hung their own map in the kitchen of one of their homes and put heart-shaped stickers on their respective destinations.

“After our initial excitement, we then Zoom’ed in with a few of our other close friends to share the news,” O’Brien said.

The UI College of Medicine called off this year’s traditional “Match Day” ceremonies — originally planned for Friday — due to the spreading coronavirus and widespread suppression measures at the state and local level, including a governor prohibition of gatherings over 10 and the campus’ cancellation of all events and in-person classes for the rest of the semester.

Compounding the pain of the lost matching ritual, UI administrators earlier this week canceled commencement ceremonies for its thousands of graduates — including the 156 senior medical students wrapping their academic endeavors on campus this spring.

“For me, I would say probably commencement is a bit bigger of a bummer,” said O’Brien, who earned her undergraduate degree from Drake University and currently serves as the UI medical college’s student body president. “Commencement is kind of like our goodbye to each other.

“It’s a combination of all of our hard work and recognition of that,” she said. “But it’s also a chance to celebrate one last time together before we spread out across the United States.”

Of this year’s UI medical school graduates, 80 — or about half the class — are entering primary care training, with the others dispersed in the areas of family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, and obstetrics-gynecology.

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More than a quarter — 43 will take first-year postgraduate training in Iowa, including 32 at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Other popular states welcoming the new UI graduates include Texas, taking 11; California, taking nine; and Minnesota, accepting eight.

Most of the medical college’s 156 graduates — 153 — obtained their matches through the National Residency Matching Program, a private nonprofit organization that uses an algorithm to match applicant preferences with those of residency program directors.

The students started preparing applications for residencies last summer, and submitted those applications early fall, following up with interviews and ranking their top choices in February, according to Matt Edwards, UI Carver College of Medicine registrar.

Students usually find out if they matched privately, prompting a supplemental application process for the small number who didn’t. The students then learn where they matched during the public ceremony and celebration in March, Edward said.

Initially — even as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified — Edwards said the college hoped to hold a smaller event, without all the people who typically show for Match Day events. Students still would get envelopes and take them to their families off site.

“But then, as things have progressed the last few weeks, it was clear we weren’t even going to be able to do that,” Edwards said. “It was disappointing for us. And it was really sad for the students and their families to not be able to have that event together.”

The university was planning to just email the students Friday until administrators learned the national matching entity instead would notify the students directly by 11 a.m. The students — being in the medical field — understand the cancellations and are flexible, but Edwards said they’re understandably disappointed.

“Match day is kind of the big culminating piece of confirming that they’re going to be able to get into the specialty they wanted to get into at a location they were hoping for,” Edwards said, noting the loss of graduation as well. “Having both of those events off has been really devastating for those students and disappointing for us.”

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Plus, he said, when many of the new graduates arrive at their residency destinations, they could be thrown into the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis facing the country and medical field.

“They’re going to be front-line, for many of them, health care providers,” he said. “They’re going to be doctors in two months, and they’re going to be going out and directly working through and dealing with what’s going on right now with COVID-19.”

Although O’Brien isn’t specifically trained in emergency medicine or any of the specialties dealing with coronavirus patients, she acknowledged the chance she could be repurposed as soon as she arrives in Oklahoma.

“Should we be mentally prepared for that when all of us — myself included — go off to our residencies? Yeah, we probably should,” she said. “I think it’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck situation for a while.

“But it’s what we signed up for.”

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