Dr. Caroline Crain fainted during her first experience shadowing a surgeon in the operating room. It may seem an inauspicious start to her budding medical career, but the gaffe is more common than people think. Besides, Crain’s road to becoming a doctor began 20 years ago, back when she enrolled at Highlander School.

Crain and two Highlander friends graduated this spring into heart of the pandemic – Crain from UTMB Galveston, Hayley Williams from UT Southwestern and London Dority from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. All three say their experiences growing up in Lake Highlands – and their start at the small Christian school – prepared them to enter a demanding career at an extraordinarily challenging time.

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“No one in my immediate or extended family is in the medical field, so I really didn’t have any exposure to it prior to college,” says Crain, who initially enrolled at UT Austin to study business. When she excelled in science courses, she began exploring career options such as physician assistant. After a few shadowing and volunteer experiences, she set her sights on medical school.

Dority’s path to vet school was more straightforward.

“I have wanted to be a veterinarian ever since I was 5 or 6 years old,” she says. “Growing up, I was always fascinated by any type of animal and knew I wanted to surround myself with them when I got older. I have always been drawn to veterinary medicine because you must deal with both animals and people. I know what it is like to have a pet feel like a part of the family, and I want to do whatever I can to preserve that special bond.”

Dority now works as a vet in Houston, handling internal medicine, dermatology, ultrasound, neurology and exotics. She primarily sees dogs and cats but can handle reptiles, birds and pocket pets.

As the three women prepared to finish med school early this year, the coronavirus was picking up steam and creating chaos in hospitals all over the world. Though their education was disrupted, all looked for ways to learn from the experience and make a contribution.

Williams joined her fellow students preparing the medical center and screening patients and visitors for symptoms. “I think there has been a lot of fear surrounding this pandemic, and rightfully so,” she says, “but I felt encouraged by all the people I saw volunteering and working to try to protect others when they could and by staying home when they couldn’t. I do think we will see more pandemics in our lifetime, so I think it’s important we try to remember the lessons we’ve learned with COVID and carry them forward with us.”

“Many infectious disease experts have warned about the potential for a pandemic,” agrees Crain, “but I never expected it to happen during my lifetime, let alone during the beginning of my residency training. I don’t know that anyone could have fully anticipated the way that COVID-19 would affect our country and the world.”

Though the animal kingdom hasn’t been rocked with widespread illness, the pandemic brought unique challenges there, too.

“Proper communication and lack of resources have been two hurdles a lot of healthcare workers have faced,” says Dority. “Many, if not most, veterinary clinics have turned to curbside services to maintain social distancing and keep everyone safe. I have found communicating strictly over the phone to be challenging at times. Since my patients can’t tell me what is wrong with them, their owner must be their voice. This can be challenging when having to communicate over the phone.”

Dority also believes some aspects of healthcare are forever changed – for the better.

“Healthcare workers may be safer now that we have a better understanding of the disease. I cannot speak for human medical professionals, but having curbside services and COVID protocols in our clinic has helped keep everyone safer.”

Another positive, Dority says, is the way people are choosing to adopt pets while they are quarantining.

“We have been very busy, partially because more animals are getting adopted, but also because many owners have more time at home now to watch their pets more closely,” says Dority, who has a Chinese Shar Pei named Sophie and a German Shepherd named Sarge. “I have also seen many owners having to deal with their pets’ separation anxiety as they switch from working at home to going back to work.”

“It is always such a treat when the therapy dogs come through,” agrees Williams. “It brings a smile to everyone’s face.”

Despite the improvements in care, the women’s experience has taken – and continues taking – a toll mentally and physically. All around them, patients in the community are becoming ill. And many are dying.

“I just finished a month in the intensive care unit, and we are continuing to treat many COVID-19 positive patients,” says Crain. “I have already seen multiple people die from this disease and its complications, and it has been very difficult to watch family members say goodbye to their loved ones from outside the window of the rooms. The hardest thing about working as a healthcare worker during this pandemic has been caring for the sickest of the people affected by the virus. It is easy to feel discouraged when there is still so much unknown about the virus and the treatment options seem futile. All of the controversy surrounding the virus dissipates when you watch a patient die from COVID-19 with your own eyes. While there are some asymptomatic and mild cases of this infection, I was initially shocked to see just how sick some of the patients were in the hospital.”

Crain has been heartened by the many displays of appreciation and affection shown by members of the public and by patient families, who send food or other goodies. There’s no feeling like waving goodbye, she says, when a patient finally improves.

“The most rewarding part of this pandemic is when patients recover from COVID-19 and are able to go home. The song ‘Gonna Fly Now’ by Bill Conti is played through the speakers in my hospital every time a COVID-19 patient leaves, and everyone celebrates when they hear it.”

Williams is completing a 4-year residency at Ohio State, and she has compiled a few tips for future physicians.

“It’s an absolute privilege to be in medicine. You get to be with people in the highest highs and lowest lows, and I feel extremely grateful to be in this position. One thing I wish I had done that would make me a more effective doctor is to learn another language. I took a foreign language during high school, as many people did I’m sure, but sticking with a language and learning to speak it fluently, would be a great asset.”

Crain, currently completing her residency at a community hospital in Chicago, will head back to UTMB next year for three more years of residency training in dermatology. She has similar advice for future docs.

“Medicine is a field of ‘lifelong learning,’ so I would encourage anyone interested in medicine to be prepared for that. We are constantly adapting to new research and treatments as science continues to evolve.”

Dority encourages young students to be bold about sharing their dreams – with parents, teachers and even young friends.

“Growing up, I had no idea Hayley wanted to be a doctor and had only briefly heard that Caroline wanted to be one as well. I would have loved to discuss our passions for medicine and science if I had known.”

Finally, Williams shared guidance based on her hard-won experience in the trenches.

“Stay home when you can, and mask up/wash your hands when you can’t stay home. I realize that life must go on, but we also have to find ways to manage our new reality and protect the most vulnerable members of our population.”