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COVID-19-induced ‘sophomore medical student syndrome’

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Coronavirus data has flooded our world for six months. The public is scared. At the same time, physicians continue to work every day and many do not seem frightened at all. Physicians, including me, are most concerned about patients who avoid needed care and fear medical settings, which are actually safe. Physicians know something the public does not. How?

The public’s fear of the COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of my early days in medical school. My classmates and I had been inundated with a mass of frightening medical information that we were not yet prepared to deal with. In my sophomore year of medical school, I remember thinking every headache was a brain tumor, every twinge of abdominal discomfort was liver cancer and when I was thirsty, it meant I had developed diabetes. 

I was not alone. Everyone in my class seemed to think he or she was dying of something. This is what I refer to as “sophomore medical student syndrome.” 

Fast-forward to today, when you can’t turn on the TV without hearing about COVID-19.

From the time we first learned of this novel coronavirus earlier this year, we’ve been inundated with information and data. For example, you might have heard that the virus can be transmitted through, “cytokine storms,” in which the body starts fighting itself instead of the coronavirus. Or, you might have come across reports of some of the symptoms characterized by a diminished sense of smell and taste. While there is research to back up COVID-19-related olfactory dysfunction, it is rare. It should also be noted that many other things can cause these symptoms.

The deluge of developing information might have felt — maybe still does — overwhelming.

But could these effects really be harbingers of disaster? 

Some have referred to this coronavirus as “the plague;” however, it is not. But with the entire country suffering from “sophomore medical student syndrome,” it seems to be. The true plague, also known as “The Black Death,” took place in the Middle Ages and it wiped out entire populations. Sometimes the plague would quickly kill half the people in a large city.  

That’s not happening.

The virus has been with us for half a year. You may or may not know someone who has personally died from COVID-19, but more people are recovering from the virus than they are dying. I ask many people that question and almost all say they do not. I personally knew one — a 75-year-old man.   

Real risk exists, but the fear generated by publicity is much greater. Here in California you would have to know over 3,000 people to know one who died or COVID-19, but one in 150 Californians die of other things every year.  

You probably knew several people who have died from something other than COVID-19. I certainly did and, sadly, several of them were my patients.

I am looking forward to everyone getting through this sophomore-like educational year and go onto their junior year much more prepared, just as my medical school colleagues and I did. That’s the year one begins to gain perspective, learns a little about how to treat things and rebuilds psychological defense mechanisms. 

Here’s to that rebuilding process, next year.

Dr. Thomas W. LaGrelius, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., is a board certified specialist in family medicine and geriatric medicine. He is the founder and president of Skypark Preferred Family Care, a concierge primary care/geriatrics practice based in Torrance, Calif. He is a staff member at Torrance Memorial Medical Center and Providence Little Company of Mary Torrance Hospital. 

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus death toll coronavirus infection rate coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 disease Fear mortality rate novel coronavirus Pandemic

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