Studying Dentistry in a Pandemic

Studying Dentistry in a Pandemic

Hi, my name is Lily and I’m a 3rd year dental student studying at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. This last year, as we all know, has been an unpredictable one, with the pandemic altering almost every aspect of normal life. I wanted to shed some light on how the pandemic has transformed my experience at dental school, and what that might mean for those who anticipate studying dentistry.

It was announced on the Monday the 16th of March 2020 that all clinical and laboratories in the dental hospital were to close and following this, all teaching was to end on the subsequent Friday. When this email came through, I was conflicted on what I should be feeling. Should I feel frustrated that the university told us so last minute, or perhaps I should feel relieved that the practical exam scheduled for the following Tuesday, the one I had been dreading, was now cancelled. Above all these emotions, me, and everyone else on my course had a heavy feeling of uncertainty looming overhead. At that point, we were unaware of how long the closures could go on for, perhaps it would only be a week or two, a month at most. 

I was able to head home before the first lockdown was announced. I’ve never been particularly optimistic, so I packed my things as though I was not going to return for a long time, looking back I am glad I did. For the first few weeks, my dental school was frustratingly silent, of course they had a major task on their hands, and understandably us second and first year students were not their greatest priority. It was disheartening being home without a feeling of purpose, university was my only focus, and I felt a great loss no longer having it. Nevertheless, being home and with my family was a good distraction, it was a great comfort being together in a frightening time and being able to do so was a blessing. 

Eventually, the university organised assignments for us to complete in order to progress into the third year. These were replacements for our end of year exams which had understandably been cancelled. I was grateful to have these assignments instead of the exams we were originally scheduled for, as the changing circumstances had totally thwarted my revision efforts. Apart from this, and the odd online lecture/seminar, we did not have much in the way of university work. It was enjoyable to have a long summer at home, and I’m appreciative for the break we got from university which is very rare in normal circumstances. However, day by day I felt my interest in dentistry slowly fade until I was no longer thinking about dental school. With a loss of interest in learning, my productivity dwindled, and my days changed from focusing on my studies to wasting as much time as possible doing nothing. 

I commenced third year of dental school in September 2020, it was exciting to finally be back, even though all of our lectures and seminars were scheduled to be online only. Being able to go in for clinical practice once a week certainly made online teaching more bearable, as I was not solely trapped in my room. Clinic was different now to how it was before the pandemic, the simple things were harder to adjust to. For example, we were no longer able to get up and walk around the room, if you needed anything you had to ask a dental technician to get it for you. We were taught in smaller groups in both outreach clinics and the dental hospital, we had to have our temperature checked before entering and maintain social distancing, much like the changes everyone else has had to make this year. These changes were all in place to keep us as safe as possible, and once adjusted they became normal practice. 

In October, we finally sat the practical examination which was cancelled all the way back in March. I felt unprepared, after so long without practice, I had spent that last month relearning everything. At first, I couldn’t even remember the basics, such as how to hold the dental drill, and my progress felt frustratingly slow. Luckily, we were given a lot of practice and I managed to pass my exam which was a huge relief. 

We were able to carry on, our in person teaching during the second lockdown however this current lockdown has felt very different so far. The terrible rise in cases has meant that the staff at the dental hospital have had to be redeployed elsewhere, leaving us with our clinical teaching once again postponed. It feels as though we are now once again surrounded by uncertainty, almost a year on. The fourth- and fifth-year students are a priority and thus we are left to wait and see what happens. There will come a time where my dental school, and many others across the country, will have to take a step back and assess how much our cohort has been affected by the expansive teaching hiatus, and whether the damage done to our development into qualified dentists is irreparable.

Nevertheless, I am feeling far more optimistic nowadays. The last year has taught me a lot about adapting to change, and I feel somewhat prepared to acclimatise to any future changes. This last month I was privileged to have been given the first dose of the vaccine, as have many of my fellow students, and it feels as though things may finally change for the better. 

By Lily Colton

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