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rafael Guttierez

Rafael Gutierrez graduated early from the University of Illinois College of Medicine on Friday April 10, and is ready to begin work helping to confront the new coronavirus.

Courtesy of Rafael Gutierrez

‘I’m Proud To Now Be A Doctor’: Nearly 200 Illinois Med Students Are Graduating Early To Help With COVID-19

The students on the Zoom call joined from their bedrooms and kitchen tables. They weren’t wearing caps or gowns. There were no crowds watching or “Pomp and Circumstance” playing.

But Friday was a momentous step in these students’ academic lives: They graduated from medical school.

University of Illinois at Chicago officials announced Friday they were graduating 192 medical students early, so they could be available to start their residency programs to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: All of WBEZ’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chicago and the region

The students gathered on Zoom to recite the Hippocratic oath as a group. “As a member of the medical profession, I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life to the service of humanity,” the group said in unison. None of these students could have anticipated this would be how they started their medical careers.

Graduate Urveel Shah said one line really rang true for him: “I will foster the honor and noble traditions of the medical profession.

“Especially,” he said, “given that when we think about this pandemic in the future, these will be the traditions that we will be thinking about and considering as we work toward advancement.”

The university contacted students a few weeks ago to see who had already met graduation requirements. The final third of the class will graduate in May.

The graduates can now reach out to their residency programs to see if they can begin before their original July 1 start date. A third are matched with residency programs in Illinois, with the rest are scattered across the country, including Chicago-native Rafael Gutierrez. He’s heading to Wisconsin for a residency in pediatrics, but said he’s ready to help patients of any age during this pandemic, in any way he can.

“I’m proud to now be a doctor and to head into the battlefield and treat my patients,” Gutierrez said

Rafael Gutierrez

Chicagoan Rafael Gutierrez is due to begin his pediatric residency in Wisconsin. Here he is on the day he matched with his residency program earlier this year.

Courtesy of Rafael Gutierrez

Meanwhile, Gutierrez is part of a COVID-19 rapid response team at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and is volunteering Saturday at the field hospital being set up at McCormick Place. They’re conducting a “dry run” practice to make sure doctors are ready when they might need to use the facility for actual patients. The 1,750 bed hospital that could start taking patients as early as next week.

“We’re excited today, but we’re also very solemn in a way, because we know these students are entering the profession of medicine at a very challenging time,” said Dr. Mark Rosenblatt, executive dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine. “It makes us understand even more the impact our profession has on the world and our communities and the patients around us. They’re entering at a time when we need physicians more than ever.”

Gov. JB Pritzker has said that medical students across the state could be tapped to help respond to the increased number of coronavirus cases but has not made any official announcement. Other local schools have not announced early graduations for medical students, but Rush University’s medical school graduation is coming up on April 30. Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing all medical students in the state to graduate early.

Even though the graduates are all stuck at home, Gutierrez said they’re still finding ways to celebrate.

“We’re having a video party, and we’re dressing up and having drinks and [inviting] our significant others,” he said.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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