Being A Medical Student When Disaster Strikes

George Katoul al Rahbani
Published on Feb 4, 2021. Updated on Feb 4, 2021.

Pandemics, protests, fires, and explosions were among the many catastrophes we faced in 2020. In this article, OMEF George Katoul al Rahbani dives deeper into the role of the medical student in the middle of all these crises, giving a personal account of what life has been like for him during these trying times.

2020, right? Wildfires, COVID-19, protests, and for medical students who live in Lebanon, such as myself, an explosion that severely damaged our campuses, hospitals, and even injured many of us. It was a hard year for everyone, and in many ways, we're still reeling from it.

As these crises rage on and our daily lives are disrupted, where do we as medical students fit in? What becomes of our education? How can we help without endangering ourselves? And, how do we deal with psychological effects? In this article, I want to share my experiences and provide some advice for people who may unfortunately find themselves in similar circumstances.

Helping others while staying safe

In the adrenaline-fueled immediate aftermath of any disaster happening, many of us want to volunteer to help those in need. Many might even do so with little regard for our own safety. Although this is a noble act, it is not necessarily always the right thing to do. So how exactly do we find that balance?  

Ask this question first: “Am I safe now?”

This is the most important question when facing any emergency. Take a step back and evaluate your own status. 

Am I safe?  Can I help another person?  If I help that person, will I still be safe? 

Keep reminding yourself to ask “Am I safe now?” And if the answer is “No”, do whatever you can to turn it into a “Yes” first before helping. My fellow OMEF, Sahil Barwhani, wrote an excellent article on this topic with a focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Don’t do it unless you’re 100% ready

Don’t volunteer unless you are 100% comfortable, ready, and willing. And more importantly, don’t guilt trip other med students to volunteer and help if they don’t feel comfortable. You never know what others may be going through. 

If they do end up volunteering when not ready mentally or otherwise, it could lead to poor healthcare provided to patients, or even to breaches in safety protocols for the provider. 

Always call the “Professionals”

We all know through our BLS training: “Call 911. Ask for help”—and for good reason! It might be hard to remember what to do in the heat of the moment. But, these professionals have the proper equipment, and the proper training. Calling them will be better for both you and the patient. 

Volunteer with well-known organizations or NGOs

It is always a lot safer if you volunteer with organizations like the United Nations to provide medical relief to certain areas affected by disasters. You will even provide help more efficiently under the umbrella of an organization with years of experience in disaster management.

Osmosis illustration of a medical student helping with cleanup following the Beirut Explosion.

What happens to our education?

Short term: Pausing formal education and healthcare workers (HCW) shortages 

This seems to be the general rule: there’s no time for formal teaching when the ER is flooded, whether it’s with patients in the aftermath of an explosion, or an influx of people with COVID-19. This overload leads to a transition in the role of a medical student, albeit briefly, from a student, to a worker and “self-educator”. And this provides its own unique set of learning opportunities and experiences. 

In Lebanon, after the tragic Beirut Port Explosion, hundreds of injured civilians rushed into our badly damaged Emergency Department (ED). As a result, all academic activities were postponed indefinitely, and all available med students were asked to proceed to the ED. 

It was all hands on deck! 

With COVID-19, things followed a similar pattern. Nevertheless, our exposure as medical students to these unfortunate events really did teach us a lot. We would have been happier to not have gained this experience through unfortunate events, but sadly, this was the reality we were faced with. You can read more on the tragic Beirut Blast on my colleague and fellow OMEF Joseph Kassab’s blog post: “The Beirut Blast”. 

Long-term: Restructuring the medical curriculum 

Life must go on, and education must go on. And so, once the initial shock of a crisis has passed, the medical curriculum is adjusted to accommodate our new reality. This is exemplified by what has happened during the COVID-19 Pandemic. After a long period of quarantine, academic activities were resumed after being transitioned from in-person to online. Also, many Electives were cancelled, and rotations were modified. In other words “Distance Learning” was born to help us continue learning during this pandemic.

3 ways you can minimize the psychological impacts of a disaster

1. Acknowledge that different people respond differently (even to the same crisis)

We process and manage stressful events differently. Acknowledge everyone’s reactions to what has happened. Just because you had it worse or suffered less does not mean others are being dramatic or are seeking attention.  

2. Speak up, hear others, and make sure you are heard too

  • Don’t hide your emotions: Speak up about them with professionals or others in the same situation. 

  • Hear others: People may feel comfortable opening up to someone in the medical field so listen and advise them to the best of your ability.

  • Seek professional help: Don’t let the stigma stop you: look for a therapist if you feel like you can't cope.

Osmosis illustration of medical students volunteering..

3. Take all necessary measures to make yourself feel safe again

  • Do not sleep alone at home: This goes less for COVID-19 and more for disasters such as fires or blasts. You may feel safer and sleep better if there are other people in the house, or even the same room.

  • Participate in clean-ups and repairs: Our first Osmosis Event at my university was to volunteer to clean up and repair our hospital and university, both of which were completely out of order following the Explosion. Personally, this really gave me closure, sort of like facing an issue that caused you trauma. It felt like I was fixing the damages done inside me as I fixed the damages of my surroundings.

  • Take a break: Sometimes, when things get really overwhelming, it’s completely okay to temporarily withdraw from it all (if possible). You can always come tackle the issues later with a clearer, and more rested mind.

I hope you never find yourself in a disastrous situation as we have experienced here in Lebanon, but if you do, may you find these tips helpful.

About George

George Katoul al Rahbani is a MedIV (7th year) Medical Student at University of Balamand, Lebanon. He is also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Health.. His other passion is sports. For his specialty, George wants to combine both his passions and become an Orthopedic Surgeon and sub-specialize in Sports Medicine. Medicine aside, George loves the outdoors, nature and exploring his native country of Lebanon. 


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