As the world marks the one-year anniversary of this pandemic, we continue to honor some of our MA frontline workers. MA's Heather Sammons spoke with Rio Beardsley ’04, M.D, about his experience as a fourth-year medical student at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine and what that looked like for him this last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What were your aspirations when you graduated from Marin Academy in 2004? What came next for you, and how did you find yourself back in school studying medicine?
I took the scenic route to med school. I went to Claremont McKenna College for undergrad, and at the time, I was on a trajectory to a career in government or economics. My junior year I spent abroad in India at St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi. I’ve always been a tad reckless (especially when I was 20), and there was a bit of spontaneity and thrill-seeking behind my motivation to explore India rather than some of the more traditional study abroad destinations. That decision ended up having huge downstream implications; while my time in India was definitely challenging, it was more often beautiful and hypnotic and raw, and those feelings became my North Star to follow in life.
I graduated CMC into the thick of the mortgage crisis—which was a great excuse to sidestep finding a job in consulting or finance and instead to adventure abroad again. My buddy from middle school introduced me to a mutual friend from San Rafael who was building Daraja Academy, a secondary school for Kenyan girls. I volunteered to help join the team and welcome the first class of students; not long into that first year, we built a virtual exchange between Mark Stefanski’s AP Biology class and the Form I Biology students at Daraja. During one of those glorious and restorative mid-afternoon East African rainstorms, I met a local doctor also sheltering under the metal canopy of an internet cafe—"It's raining cats and mouse!" as they like to say. We chatted, and he told me about his difficulties organizing the costs for a reproductive health clinic intended to serve the most remote bush villages in the region. I offered to make the guy a spreadsheet, which he found helpful, and in return, he asked if I wanted to join the mobile clinic on one of their trips. I immediately said yes, again motivated by that lure of adventure. I ended up working with the clinic for six months. I observed for only the first three, and after my Swahili language skills developed, I was responsible for taking blood pressure and vitals, reconstituting vaccines, and tracking newborn weight. I eventually applied to Post-Bac Premed programs from that same internet café and made my way to Columbia in NYC soon after I returned from East Africa.
NYC is where I made my bones as a human. To supplement the living expenses covered by Columbia, I worked around the city’s bar and restaurant scene. I loved that work and made some enduring friendships and connections with the people from that world. NYC, at least at the time, was a big hub for MA alums, and I had my share of hijinks and escapades with the MA crew also living in the city. After I completed my Post-Bac, I worked as a Cardiothoracic (CT) Surgery Research Associate at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Essentially, I was a paid research associate with dual roles in research and organ recovery for the CT Surgery Department. It was wild—we trained in organ preservation to work with the hospital’s organ recovery team, and were responsible for maintaining the preservation and perfusion of all heart and lung donations during transport. I got accepted into medical school five years after moving to New York—it can take a long time to make that happen—and I joined the incredible community of providers and learners at UVM.
You are a fourth-year medical student at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed medical education?
When COVID hit in March 2020, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) issued guidelines essentially holding medical students out of the inpatient hospital setting until the situation stabilized. As early fourth-years at the time, my cohort had already finished the core of our clinical clerkships—it was more the residency application process that changed for us. Traditionally that requires flying around the country on an interview “trail” to interview at various hospitals. It can be grueling and exhausting and expensive, and we avoided that when the interview season went virtual. Removing that cost-prohibition for applicants to attend interviews proved to have both an upside and downside—those applicants in the top-tier were able to accept many more interview spots than in the past, possibly making the process even more selective overall.
How was your clinical experience, and was it impacted at all due to the pandemic?
My cohort was the first group of med students to get back into the hospital in June 2020. There were new limits on the type of patients we could help manage and the procedures we could do. The providers dedicated to working with COVID patients were defined and limited to the senior staff and attendings. As the floors had to be rearranged to accommodate COVID wards, there was a new mixing of patient populations. For example, one floor of cardiac patients and one floor of orthopedic patients might be combined to accommodate a floor dedicated to COVID patients. This more directly affected the ancillary and nursing staff assigned to each floor rather than the medical students and doctors designated for each medical specialty service (regardless of location in the hospital). Medical students were also initially prohibited from engaging in “aerosolizing” procedures—primarily that means intubations and emergency airway management. As someone going to Emergency Medicine, I had to return later in the year when those restrictions were lifted to supplement my training.
On July 1 you will officially be an ER doctor! What is it about the emergency department that interests you?
It was actually restaurant work that helped me discover a home in the emergency department. The same principles applied: put in orders, check in with patients often, and turn tables, so to speak, all while being pulled in different directions. Time spent behind a bar and waiting tables is how I developed some of those skills most necessary in the ED—discipline, punctuality, how to think under pressure. I learned to love the way I think under pressure. I’ve chased adventure and courted high-pressure life experiences before; my time in the East African bush meant learning to keep my cool both at checkpoint crossings and under the scrutiny of desert bandits. But it was the ED that challenged me to own and dissect how I think under duress. I noticed during resuscitations a flexible structure of time—depending on my role, the events would unfold in different temporalities. Seconds dragged as I performed compressions, minutes rushed as I drew up meds. It’s a trippy place, and I love it there.
What do you look forward to most in becoming a doctor?
All clichés aside, it’s truly a privilege to be a doctor. Especially in the ER, we get to interface with humanity in such a personal and vulnerable context that it demands we are truly present and engaged in each moment. That’s a template I’ve tried to carry into other parts of my life, and it’s been deeply rewarding.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the MA community?
I have such tremendous gratitude to the Marin Academy community. I made friendships there that have endured and are still as strong and fun as ever. I still maintain that my time at MA was easily hands-down the best educational experience of my life. The teachers knew how to be a role model when I needed a role model, a friend when I needed a friend, and to kick me in the butt when I needed that (which was often). Most importantly, they helped me learn to trust my future self. And this is probably way outdated now, but the planner handed out on the first day of freshman year changed everything. It taught me how to scaffold and plan my life for success. I still use that technique today. Now that I’m finally returning home and have the privilege of training at Stanford for Emergency Medicine, I’m here and available to help and engage with the community however I can. GO WILDCATS.
Thank you for sharing your story and what the past year has been like for you as a medical student, and congratulations, Dr. Beardsley! You’ve had quite an adventurous life that has prepared you well for what’s to come. We wish you all the best, Rio, and look forward to seeing you back in the Bay Area—just hopefully not in your ER!
What are you up to? If you’re a MA alum and would like to be interviewed, please reach out to Heather Sammons, Director of Alumni Engagement, at email@example.com.