Alix Cooper, a 26-year-old from Klamath Falls, isn’t exactly sure when she decided that she wanted to become a doctor, but she knows it was early on.

“At some point in my childhood, family lore says before the age of four, I just decided I was going to be a doctor,” Cooper said. “I just never changed my mind after that.”

It’s a good thing she didn’t waver. Especially now, as the nation’s healthcare system is strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cooper is part of a small group of recent Oregon Health & Science University graduates who are set to begin their hospital residencies early to help alleviate the burden put on healthcare workers. And although medical student graduates are entering this field in an uncertain and scary time, many say taking care of those in need is why they chose to be doctors in the first place.

Cooper, who studied rural family medicine at OHSU, will begin a residency at Cascades East Family Medicine in Klamath Falls on April 20, well ahead of her original July 1 start date.

There’s no way that anyone could have predicted that Cooper and her fellow graduates would be entering medicine during a global health pandemic, but Cooper says that added element of danger doesn’t change a thing for her.

“We’re most needed when it’s most dangerous,” she said. “I think we’re always at some amount of risk, and we have to understand that being at risk is part of the job.”

Cooper was able to graduate early this year because of OHSU’s competency-based curriculum, which allows students to complete their education based on mastery rather than checking off every item on the traditional four-year program. Over 100 other students also graduated on March 19, about three months earlier than usual.

Dr. George Mejicano, OHSU’s senior associate dean for education, says the timing was serendipitous.

“We were able to grant their degrees on that day,” Mejicano said. “And that was independent of COVID-19.”

But not all recent graduates are able to start their residencies early, like Cooper. Mejicano says only facilities managed by OHSU — such as Cascades East — have been able to fast-track residency programs so far. 

Most medical students in OHSU’s graduating class this year are waiting to head out for residencies that begin this summer at hospitals across the country. Some are going to cities that have been or currently are COVID-19 epicenters, including Seattle, New York City and New Orleans.

Zoe Teton.

Zoe Teton.

OPB

Zoe Teton, who also graduated early this year from OHSU, is slated to begin a residency at another coronavirus hotspot: The UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The virus has hit Los Angeles County particularly hard with over 6,000 confirmed cases and more than 150 deaths, according to county public health officials. The strain on the healthcare system there is especially prominent.

Teton says she’s ready to fill in any healthcare gaps at her residency as needed.

“This is what we’re supposed to be doing and what we came here to do,” she said. “We’re raring to go.” 

Even though Teton will be an intern in the neurosurgery program, she says this current public health emergency only pushes her drive to serve as many people as possible further.

“This is so much bigger than any one person or any one field,” she said. “It absolutely heightens that resolve to get out there and help our fellow humans.”

Meanwhile, Cooper has less than two weeks before she starts at Cascades East in Klamath Falls. What’s motivating her now, she said, is the idea that everyone has a role to play during this crisis.

“We’re seeing a lot of people step up and contribute whatever they can — whether that be making masks, taking care of the older adults or offering discounted food.” Cooper said. “My role just happens to be something that’s more direct to patient care and I can draw inspiration from all of those other people.”