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New medical students eager to learn, serve during pandemic

OHSU M.D. Class of 2024: 45% come from racial or ethnic backgrounds other than white; 63% identify as female
students wearing white coats
Students from the M.D. class of 2023, at the white coat ceremony, where new medical students don their white coats for the first time. Due to the pandemic, this year's ceremony has been postponed, and students at taking at least the first six-weeks of instruction online. (OHSU/Jordan Sleeth)

Oregon Health & Science University’s 150 newest medical students recently began orientation virtually, with online sessions instead of the typical on-campus lectures and tours.

Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the OHSU School of Medicine M.D. Class of 2024’s first six weeks of instruction will take place online. After that, the first-year medical students may be physically on campus in 2020 only for learning activities that require face-to-face contact, including practicing clinical skills like taking each other’s vital signs. It’s unknown when or if in-person classes will happen this year.

And some traditions such as the white coat ceremony, where brand-new medical students typically receive their white coats for the first time, have been postponed. While many plans are flexible due to the pandemic’s difficult-to-predict nature, OHSU School of Medicine faculty remain dedicated to ensuring all OHSU medical students receive the training and experiences needed to become skilled and compassionate physicians.

Tracy Bumsted, M.D., M.P.H.
Tracy Bumsted, M.D., M.P.H.
Sharon Anderson, M.D.
Sharon Anderson, M.D.

“The new students were actively engaged in our first-ever virtual orientation course and have already shown great resilience and flexibility in starting their journey to become physicians,” said Tracy Bumsted, M.D., associate dean for undergraduate medical education, OHSU School of Medicine.

"This is a transformative time in medicine,” said Sharon Anderson, M.D., OHSU School of Medicine dean. “We are facing the complexities of a global pandemic and wrestling with the imperative of dismantling systemic racism across our profession and our institution. Both are redefining our priorities, and how we learn and do our work, and medical students are playing an essential role in forging the path forward."

OHSU’s newest medical students are eager to learn the science and art of health care, and ultimately join global efforts to protect human health and well-being.

“It’s been hard to be on the doorstep of medicine this year,” acknowledged first-year student Bret Gilbert. “I’ve felt so helpless, having not received any medical training yet, and not being able to care for COVID-19 patients or people injured in protests against racial injustice. But I’m also so grateful to all those who are volunteering their time, giving life-saving care, and serving the public. It’s been powerful to see people in health care stand together and get things done for their patients.”

A quick statistical snapshot of the M.D. Class of 2024, as well as profiles of two of its members, are below.

Of the 150 medical students matriculating this fall:

  • 45% come from racial or ethnic backgrounds other than white
  • 77% are Oregonians or of Oregon heritage
  • 63% identify as female
  • 33% come from a disadvantaged background or have faced adversity
  • 25% come from a rural background
  • 21% come from a racial or ethnic group underrepresented in medicine
  • Three have completed military service

Bret Gilbert

Bret Gilbert
Bret Gilbert

Bret Gilbert, 30 and from Salem, hopes to use medicine to help others avoid or overcome substance abuse, something he says “heavily burdened the homes I grew up in.”

Both of his parents previously abused alcohol, and are now in recovery. His father was rushed to hospitals on multiple occasions to receive life-saving care for injuries or symptoms related to alcohol. And Gilbert himself struggled with alcohol abuse during his first stint in college.

“I owe a great debt to medicine for keeping my family intact,” Gilbert said. “When I’m a physician, my personal experience will help me better understand patients who struggle to follow medical recommendations. It can come from a deeper place, a deeper trauma.”

Gilbert’s journey to medical school hasn’t been direct. He wanted to become a physician early on; he used to guess athlete injuries while watching sports as a teenager, but became lost during his first two years of college and failed out. He then worked as a housecleaner and a commercial fisher, jobs that taught him personal responsibility and gave him renewed purpose.

Five years later, he re-returned to the University of Oregon, where he got in touch with his roots as a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, through the Native American Student Union. After earning a bachelor’s degree in natural science in 2019, Gilbert spent the summer working in a Portland VA Medical Center behavioral neuroscience lab through the OHSU Center for Diversity and Inclusion Equity Research Program.

He then participated in the OHSU Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway, which offers citizens of federally recognized tribes 10 months of classes and experiences to better prepare them for the medical school admissions process.

“I see medicine as a vehicle to improve my own life, the lives of my family members, and also improve the lives of my future patients,” Gilbert said. “I want to encourage more Native scholars to pursue medicine, as well as encourage others who fail out of school to not give up.”

Nelly Nouboussi

Nelly Nouboussi
Nelly Nouboussi

Nelly Nouboussi, 22 and of Eugene, is following in her mother’s footsteps.

Growing up in Cameroon, her physician mother started a small clinic in two rooms of their family home, where her neighbors received health care, regardless of their ability to pay. When Nouboussi’s family received visas through the U.S. immigration lottery, she jumped at the chance to move to Eugene at age 13 so she could eventually attend an American medical school.

While learning English, she attended high school in Eugene and later the University of Oregon, where she graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Now both she and her older sister are starting medical school this month. (Her sister will study at Drexel University College of Medicine in Pennsylvania.)

“I came to the U.S. with this one goal,” Nouboussi said. “I’m excited to finally be able to be a medical student. It feels like a dream come true.”

Interested in infectious diseases such as malaria that are more common in Cameroon, she says starting medical school in the middle of a global pandemic is particularly meaningful.

“It definitely emphasizes how important health care is,” Nouboussi said. “Infectious diseases don’t affect just one person, they affect society as a whole. I want to be at the forefront of efforts to prevent the spread of diseases and develop vaccines.”

While she eventually wants to serve as a physician in Cameroon, she’s also eager to use her future medical skills to help underserved communities here in the United States.

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