Pandemic inspires medical student

Iola native Eric Heffern is finishing his second year of medical school. He notes the COVID-19 pandemic has offered a prime learning opportunity for health officials around the world.

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Local News

April 15, 2020 - 10:04 AM

Eric Heffern will soon start his third year as a medical student, beginning a surgical rotation at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Courtesy photo

Even without the stay-at-home requirements of the coronavirus pandemic, Iola native Eric Heffern would have found himself in isolation right now.

That’s because he’s holed up studying for his first board exam as he finishes his second year of medical school. 

“I’d be stuck inside studying anyway, so it’s not as bad for me as other people,” he said.

He’s not yet sure he’ll be able to take the test May 15 as scheduled; currently, testing centers are closed.

Regardless, Heffern will start his clinical rotations in late May. First is a rotation in surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center. 

He doesn’t expect that to change because of the virus, although the types of surgeries he sees likely will be mostly urgent or emergencies rather than elective.

It’s an interesting time to be studying medicine, Heffern said. He’s not far enough along in his education to serve on the front lines, but he’s in a position to watch, learn and contribute in other ways.

“Obviously, it’s unfortunate circumstances but it’s a great learning experience in how to react to one of the most pressing challenges in health care in my lifetime,” he said.

“The physicians at KU are incredible educators and I’m grateful I will be able to learn from them on how to keep moving forward and focusing on optimal patient care during this difficult time. Not only do they have patients to take care of, but their job is to help us learn. It’s been tough for them to manage both those things while they have an increased workload, but it’s teaching us how to prioritize our time.”

The physicians have offered advice to help the medical student stay healthy, and also suggested ways they could help. The students perhaps could offer their services as babysitters for the children of doctors and nurses, for example.

“It’s been a unique experience, for sure.”

Iola native Eric Heffern poses with a group of fellow medical students. Front, from left, Greta Ciccolari-Micaldi, Sarah Gillaspie, Sana Cheema; back, Colton Schwarz, Joey Jeffrey, Matthew Kavanaugh and Heffern.Courtesy photo

HEFFERN GREW up in Iola and graduated from Iola High School in 2013. He is the son of Larry and Mary Heffern, who moved to Topeka when he was a sophomore in college. 

He attended Kansas State University to study engineering, but soon found himself questioning that decision. He thought maybe he’d rather pursue a career in health care, an idea that had always been in the back of his mind.

That was the right direction, he decided. But he’s still unsure where that path will ultimately lead.

“I’ve shadowed a fair amount of specialities. I’m excited to see everything,” he said.

He’s been interested in family practice, orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery, internal medicine and more.

“Honestly, every time I work with a different doctor I want to do that,” he joked. “It may come down to what I like when it’s time to apply for residency.”

He’ll have plenty of time to decide, as he will spend his third year in various clinical rotations.

He’s eager for the experience in surgery, which he said checks a lot of boxes.

“I want every day to be a little different, and to be on my feet, not just thinking but also doing. I feel like the day-to-day schedule with surgery would be really exciting,” Heffern said. “But I also want to have a connection to patients, and with some specialties like surgery you don’t have as much of a long-term relationship. A good mix of those things would be perfect, and that’s why I really have to explore my options.”

His surgery rotation should be a bit different than normal. Hospitals across the country have canceled or postponed elective surgery to conserve resources in the fight against COVID-19, performing only those considered urgent or emergencies. 

“As far as I know, it won’t impact my schedule but it might impact the surgeries I see,” he said. 

FOR VARIOUS reasons, Heffern appreciates the significance of healthcare in this moment in time.

Though his parents no longer live in Iola, he still has relatives in the area, including his grandmother, Bernita Heffern, who lives at a local nursing home.

He’s been unable to visit but has talked to her on the phone. His cousins and aunt have been able to talk to her through a window at the facility. Still, Heffern worries about the isolation his grandmother and others must feel at this time, as well as her health and well-being.

He also has great respect for the front-line healthcare responders, as he sees firsthand the challenges they face. They risk their own health and devote much of their time to take care of others. 

“From the nurses to the doctors and everyone in the hospital, they are doing a great thing in taking care of the most vulnerable people,” he said. 

“Whenever I have the opportunity to spend time with physicians and see what they do on a day-to-day basis, I think, ‘Wow, I cannot wait to be in their shoes.’”

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