From dorm rooms and apartments, 52 medical students watched video of themselves roll across their screens. Miles away, their proud families followed online. Gazing into webcams, the students pledged the Hippocratic oath in frayed unison, dozens of different starts and voices, all coming to the same point.
They could get on with doctoring.
On Friday, a virtual graduation was held over video chat for nearly half the 2020 class at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. They were two months ahead of schedule. That moment will be repeated in some form at other medical schools in the coming days.
The more ragged the ritual, the more soul-stirring its core: Young people were stepping up to join others already serving at an hour of crisis, little different than soldiers being deployed in war.
“The country needs to mobilize people,” said Dr. Steven Abramson, the dean of the Grossman school. “Last time this happened was in World War II, when medical schools were shortened to three years.”
Celebrate the students today. Remember, too, that they stand as proxies for an entire caste of the essential: doctors, nurses and technicians, of course, but also those who drive buses, pick up garbage, save lives in ambulances, stock grocery shelves, deliver mail, push bins of dirty sheets down corridors, keep the electricity grid humming and the sewer system flowing, and figure out how to make space in hospitals when none is left.
Among unnamed others.
“People have been showing up in the hospital from day one, and working so hard,” said Allison Horan, a medical student who urged N.Y.U. to get her class into the fight.
The students were pulled out of hospitals last month when the disease took off, and would have little to do until summer when they will begin a year as interns at hospitals around the country.
Prodded by Ms. Horan and others, the school surveyed the class of 120 to find out how many wanted to begin a short-term stint of work in New York right away, backstopping doctors treating coronavirus patients. Within 12 hours, Dr. Abramson said, they had enough volunteers — 52 was the final count — to move ahead. Most of those did not live with especially vulnerable people.
“It was a really easy decision to do this,” Evan Gerber, 26, said. “You have a moral obligation to society.”
“I sent my mom a text, ‘N.Y.U. is drafting medical students to help fight Covid,’” Mark S. Cort, 26, said. “She immediately called me. She knows I’m pretty hardheaded. She made sure that I knew she loved me, and that she would be praying for me.”
“If they are saying they need more foot soldiers,’’ Dr. Horan said, “I’m here to help.”
It was a spirit echo of a moment 17 years ago, when hundreds of soldiers from the 101st Airborne of the United States Army gathered in a giant hangar at Fort Campbell, Ky., before they boarded planes for the invasion of Iraq. The national leadership had deemed it a worthy cause, a decision many saw, or came to see, as wrong.
But what started true and stayed true was the impulse of those men and women to serve. Many were in their early 20s. (The chaplain posted a warning sign for anyone trying to rush a big decision: “I don’t marry privates and I don’t marry teenagers.”)
The troops queued to get inoculated against anthrax and smallpox, leaned over tables to designate life insurance beneficiaries, and puzzled out standardized wills, documents few had ever encountered.
With variations, the same hectic spell landed on the new doctors. Dr. Gerber, who will move to the Denver Health Medical Center in Colorado at the end of his Covid-19 service in New York, was packing boxes last week so he’d be ready to throw them in a car and drive west when the time came.
The early graduates have agreed to work for 30 days in one of four hospitals in N.Y.U.’s network, with optional two-week extensions. When they are done, they will have to quarantine for two weeks.
Dr. Cort, born in Guyana, raised in Brooklyn, and the first in his family to go to college, was organizing paperwork for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he will be an intern. He had not seen his mother or grandmother since he convinced them to stay home last month.
Of course the new doctors were afraid of the virus — “it would be insane not to feel fear,” Dr. Horan said — but they had faith in their training. As they rotated through the major medical disciplines in the hospital, they used the gowns, masks and gloves now known to the world as personal protective equipment.
“I will have to use my P.P.E. carefully,” Dr. Cort said.
The young soldiers of the 101st packed ballistic helmets and Kevlar vests. Even so, the very first of their number to fall in Iraq was a 20-year-old soldier wearing helmet and vest; a bullet struck under his arm, a lethal shot that found an unprotected opening.
Fastidious as the new doctors may be, this disease or another may find a way to infect them. “If I get Covid, I get Covid,” said Dr. Cort, whose family had little money when he was growing up. “Those are things that I can’t really control.”
On paper, the new doctors are to avoid direct care of Covid-19 patients, but an axiom of military planning applies equally to medicine: the enemy gets a vote. One day in the desert of southern Iraq, an Army commander made a prophetic understatement: “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.”
And so it is for the new doctors. No one can say with certainty what they will be called to do. They are joining legions of essentials in serving an empire of need.
“I’m signing up,” Dr. Horan said, “with the understanding that I’m here to help and to serve, however is needed.”