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KU Medical Students Will Graduate Early To Help Fight The Coronavirus In Kansas

Daniel Ortiz
Daniel Ortiz with fellow KU med students Sarah Rucker, left, and Michaelyn Everhart.

With Kansas hospitals anticipating a surge of COVID-19 patients over the next few weeks, 52 fourth-year medical students at the University of Kansas have volunteered to graduate early in order to ease the growing burden on physicians.

“I just read these stories about everyone getting overwhelmed and the need for help,” says Daniel Ortiz, one of the students. He plans to become a psychiatrist, but he’s putting off those plans for now to help combat the pandemic. “I started thinking, ‘What is it that I could do?’ I didn’t want to sit by and do nothing.”

Ortiz, who is married and has a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, was supposed to graduate in May and then begin his residency at KU. But he’s already completed all his course work and his rotations have been cut because of the pandemic.

“The state of Kansas has carried me this far and I just wanted a way to be able to get back to them, to find a way to help before I start my residency,” he said.

The early graduating students – about a quarter of the entire fourth-year class at the University of Kansas School of Medicine – will be assigned to areas of the state with the greatest need and receive special permits to practice from the Kansas Board of Healing Arts.

So far, more than 550 Kansas residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 14 have died. Although most of the cases so far have been in the state’s largest counties, cases are now beginning to crop up in the state’s rural areas, which is where many of the newly minted doctors will be dispatched.

COVID-19 deaths in Kansas are projected to peak on April 26, according to models from the University of Washington. Those models show a worst-case scenario of 18 deaths per day in the state.

Meanwhile, 66 of Kansas’ 105 counties are underserved for primary medical care, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). Nearly a third have only one or two physicians serving the entire county.  

The KU graduates will work under the supervision of practicing physicians and receive stipends for their expenses courtesy of a $1 million gift from the Patterson Family Foundation of Kansas City. The foundation was established by Cerner Corp. co-founder Neal Patterson and his wife, Jeanne Lillig-Patterson, both of whom died in 2017.

“The additional manpower provided by these medical students will be invaluable,” KDHE Secretary Lee Norman, a surgeon, said in a statement. “The state of Kansas supports this endeavor and, as an Army officer myself, I am pleased to activate the Kansas National Guard to provide the personnel to assist in placing these students where they can be most helpful to our state.”

The KU early graduation program mirrors similar initiatives in other parts of the country, especially those hit hard by the pandemic. Last week, for example, New York medical schools said they would allow fourth-year medical students to graduate early. And Rutgers New Jersey Medical School is permitting 192 students to graduate ahead of time.  

“We are aware that nearly every AAMC member medical school has considered early graduation as an option in our continued response to the pandemic,” Alison Whelan, chief medical education officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said in an email. “As of April 3, at least 11 schools have indicated that they will be offering early graduation to their entire class and at least another 11 schools will be offering early graduation to part of their class.”

Credit Rima Abhyankar
Rima Abhyankar, a fourth-year KU Med student, says she was impelled by a sense of helplessness to volunteer for early graduation.

Like Ortiz, Rima Abhyankar has also volunteered to graduate early from KU. Both her parents are physicians – her mother is an internist and her father is an oncologist – and her sister is a first-year medical student at Tufts University in Boston.

Abhyankar, who will be doing an anesthesiology residency at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in July, said a sense of helplessness impelled her to volunteer for early graduation “when we know we can help out in some capacity.”

“Just being home doing online virtual assisting feels less rewarding,” she said. “And so I think it’s a great opportunity for us to be involved, especially in a time of crisis.”  

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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