Meet the medical students joining the coronavirus fight

Corin Kinkhabwala was hoping to take it easy during his last few months of medical school.

“The plan was to do a research elective, hang out, go to the gym and play music before graduation in May,” the 29-year-old tells The Post.

Instead, the East Village resident is treating COVID-19 patients at Montefiore hospital in The Bronx.

“About two weeks ago, I got an e-mail requesting volunteers for direct patient care,” says Kinkhabwala, who studied at Montefiore’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and will begin his ear, nose and throat residency in July. “I was scared. Seeing that e-mail told me how desperate the situation was, and how short-staffed we were.”

Kinkhabwala is part of a draft of young doctors-in-training foregoing their last courses, vacations and formal graduations to fight the coronavirus pandemic that’s overrunning New York hospitals with sick and dying patients. Local medical schools, including NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, announced plans in late March to graduate eligible students early and deploy them to hospitals across the city. And on Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to sign an executive order to allow all graduation-ready med students to start practicing medicine, tweeting, “New York needs help.”

“I can’t justify relaxing and bingeing on Netflix knowing that I have the skill set to help people,” says Randy Casals, 28, a lifelong New Yorker who’s graduating from Columbia’s medical school next week and will start pitching in at NewYork-Presbyterian the next day. “I chose urology. I didn’t plan on fighting an infectious-disease pandemic. But I still want to help out in any way possible.”

Columbia’s ceremony was supposed to be in late May, with students in gowns and traditional green cloaks and what Casals calls “a lot of pomp and circumstance.” Instead, the almost-doc will log on to take the Hippocratic oath from his Washington Heights apartment. His plan to celebrate the milestone with a coastal California road trip is on the back burner. “My girlfriend and I may have a glass of champagne, but it will probably be an early night, depending on what the next day calls for.”

Katleen Lozada, 30, a fourth-year student at the Icahn School on the Upper East Side, was “scared and excited” to start her residency in emergency medicine at Mount Sinai in July. Now that she’s scrubbed up, those feelings “have amplified a hundredfold.”

“I was reading about what was happening in Italy, and how the students graduated early there, so I figured it was only a matter of time,” says Lozada, who will graduate April 15 to start out helping doctors and nurses document and communicate with patients’ families.

For Kinkhabwala, who’s been working directly with patients for two weeks, the first day on the job was filled with anxiety.

“I thought, ‘Will I be called to do a task that I don’t know how to do, then a patient dies?’ ” he says. But he says he caught up quickly: “Once I got my first set of patients, and did my first admission, I realized I had a lot of the tools that were needed.” He adds, “I just learned all this, so it’s fresh in my mind.” Now he’s working six 12-hour shifts for six-day stretches with lower-risk coronavirus patients. His tasks include drawing blood, conducting rectal exams and performing physicals on virus-positive patients.

Of course, there are more pressing fears than first-day jitters. Whether they’re working on treating patients directly or helping out in less-active ways, such as taking notes or manning the phones, these new grads will be significantly raising their chances of exposure to the deadly virus — especially since personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, can be hard to come by in city hospitals.

Lozada calls the shortage “scary,” but is cautiously optimistic that hospitals will pull through on protective gear for her and fellow recent grads.

Gabrielle Mayer, an NYU medical student graduating early to work at Bellevue Hospital in Kips Bay, points out that even a mask is no guarantee.

“I’m comforted by the increasing presence of PPE in the hospitals, but of course it’s still a risk, regardless of how well you’re outfitted,” says the 26-year-old.

Kinkhabwala — who’s had to stretch his precious N95 masks for days — agrees.

“We’re doing everything we can to limit the exposure, but the reality is that we’re all exposed, and there’s probably coronavirus all over my scrubs,” he says. “The more you think about it, the more it terrifies you, so you just have to accept it and move on.”

Beyond staying healthy, these newly minted docs also face pressure from their families — namely, concerned parents.

“My father is against the idea of me volunteering,” says Kinkhabwala. “He’s an attending physician who’s been working for decades, and he hasn’t seen anything like this before. And what he’s seeing is people admitted to the hospital who are my age, and who are getting a tube down their throat.”

Lozada is in a similar position. “My mom is a pediatrician, and she’s really not happy with me going in to do anything on a voluntary basis and getting exposed,” she says.

‘My desire to help people and my city is exactly why I chose this career.’

Mayer adds that her parents are “nervous,” but supportive. “They know that my desire to help people and my city is exactly why I chose this career.”

All four students say they are certain that they’re making the right decision.

Work is “controlled chaos,” says Kinkhabwala, with seemingly stable patients turning south out of the blue. “We had three rapid response calls within an hour on one night shift, with teams running around trying to save as many people as possible.”

Still, there are “glimpses of hope.”

“We had a patient whose oxygen level was dropping, and I watched her be put on a ventilator, and saw it save her life,” says Kinkhabwala.

“I’ve kind of forgotten about graduation at this point.”

With additional reporting by Rosemary Misdairy

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