COVID-19 Ruins Korean Med Graduate's US Plans

Hyechang "HC" Rhim, MD


May 16, 2020

Editor's Note: A prior version of this article used the term "hospitalist" to describe a role as a night-shift general physician. The story has since been updated to clarify language regarding differences in Korean and US professional titles.

I didn't stumble into medicine; I ran into it.

After my first semester of college, I took a leave of absence to fulfill my military service with the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. While running during training, I often thought about my future. All of that thinking led to me running farther and faster. Eventually, I ran myself right into multiple injuries.

Hyechang "HC" Rhim, MD

Luckily, those injuries sparked a curiosity in the human body, training, nutrition, and physiology. I decided to become a doctor who could help patients return to activity. To fulfill my dreams, I knew I needed training in the United States, one of the leading countries for sports medicine.

By the time I had taken United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) S
tep 1 and Step 2 Clinical Knowledge (CK), as well as exams to qualify for a Korean medical license, I was close to burnout. But I had no time to rest before I was running again. This time, I was racing against the spread of the coronavirus around the world.

Close but No Exam...

On March 13, I arrived in the United States from South Korea to take the USMLE Step 2 Clinical Skills (CS) exam. This was supposed to be my last test before qualifying for Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) certification, a requirement for international medical graduates (IMGs) to match into US residency programs.

Knowing that time was against me, I bought a plane ticket that left just 2 days later. My exam was scheduled for April, but I was hoping to arrive in the United States and reschedule to a date that was sooner. Even if rescheduling didn't work, I was planning to stay until I could take the exam. My parents were...not happy. Not only was there a virus spreading, but they also wanted to spend as much time together as we could before my residency training abroad.

When I landed in the Atlanta airport, I was worried that an immigration officer would ban my entry; more and more countries were refusing Koreans at that time. When I got through, I felt a sense of relief. I turned on my cell phone and logged into the ECFMG website. I had been carefully monitoring for any changes—day and night—since February. The last update was just before I put my cellphone into airplane mode. Everything was still on. When I logged in at Atlanta, I read the latest news: "Testing centers will be closed." My sigh of relief turned into a sigh of grief. As fast as I was moving, the coronavirus was faster.

A few days later, the US embassy announced that it would suspend issuing visas until further notice. This put another opportunity in jeopardy. I had been accepted to the master of public health (MPH) program at Harvard University starting this summer and had communicated with professors about research opportunities. One of the reasons I worked so hard to finish Step 1 and 2 CK before graduation was so I could focus on that research. Many IMGs take a gap year or two so that they can take these exams in order to complete obligations associated with their institutions and to participate in observerships at US hospitals. I had managed to complete most obligations in advance. Suddenly, all of my efforts were in vain.


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