April 13, 2020—Apara Agarwal was about 60 miles south of the UF College of Medicine campus when she learned a valuable lesson that she will use throughout her career as a physician.
Agarwal and 120 fellow medical students were undergoing a training session on March 21 in preparation for conducting COVID-19 testing of the residents of The Villages retirement community when she heard a piece of advice that struck her.
“We were told, ‘You may not remember every single patient you test, but every single patient is going to remember you. You’re the only person in their life giving them this coronavirus swab.’ That was really impactful,” says Agarwal, a first-year medical student. “I thought, Wow, if I were in the patient’s situation, I would remember if the person who performed my test was friendly and empathetic or tired and standoffish. That made it real to me, and it made me vigilant about the way I interacted with my patients.”
A team of volunteer UF Health medical professionals and students together with personnel from The Villages Health primary care network evaluated 2,280 people who had preregistered for an appointment the last two weeks in March. Testing was done for people with symptoms associated with COVID-19 and for those without symptoms under the direction of Michael Lauzardo, M.D., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and global medicine at UF’s College of Medicine.
Agarwal estimates she spent 25 hours on site at The Villages performing swabs for residents, who drove up in their golf carts and cars. She says the experience made her education around pulmonary disease and coronaviruses — which the first-years were studying as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. — feel “real and tangible,” lending her “valuable experiences” she wouldn’t have gained under other circumstances.
“This experience has shown me how to be calm in the face of a crisis,” Agarwal says. “You hear in the media about health care systems getting overloaded and practitioners being burned out. It’s easy to get caught up in that and feel helpless. This project showed me that there are always things you can do. Dr. Michael Lauzardo’s calmness and his attitude of optimism while we tested in The Villages gave us the drive to keep going. When I’m a doctor, I’ll look back on these lessons during times when I feel like there’s nothing I can do.”
Agarwal looks forward to her future as a health care practitioner on the front lines with help from scholarship. She is a recipient of both the Lawrence M. Goodman Scholarship and the Hugh and Mary Wilford Scholarship. She says they provide her with the resources she needs to pursue the volunteer activities she’s most passionate about. As an officer for the UF Equal Access Clinic Network, Agarwal helps provide free medical care for Gainesville area citizens who need it most.
“I grew up in Alachua County, and I know that access to health care here can be hard if you come from a disadvantaged background,” she says. “It is important to me to help serve populations like these. Without scholarship support, I would not be able to have the time to volunteer every week.”
At the UF College of Medicine, Agarwal has taken on several leadership positions. She serves as co-president of both the radiology and immigrant health student interest groups. She says she’s drawn to radiology as a specialty for its constant technological advancements coupled with the opportunities to build impactful relationships with patients.
As president of the American Medical Association-UF chapter, Agarwal puts her passions for policy and advocacy into action. Earlier this year, Agarwal and her classmates met with aides from the offices of U.S. representatives Ross Spano and Val Demings and Senator Rick Scott to speak about measures to increase medical student wellness and improve patient health care. She says the meetings she held made her feel inspired and motivated to continue being an advocate as a medical student and in her future career as a physician.
“We spoke about the issues that we’re passionate about and explained our perspective as future doctors why we think they should support this bill. It was interesting to be taken so seriously as students. They really listened, took note and stayed in communication,” says Agarwal. “I’m definitely going back to D.C. again next year.”