In this time of COVID-19, the normal flow and rhythm of ophthalmology trainee education has been disrupted. Our days are no longer bustling with clinics, surgeries, and minor procedures. Departmental and national meetings as well as examinations (oral boards and OKAPs) have been abruptly cancelled.
Although this unforeseen break in the academic calendar could be viewed as a setback, it is important to see the silver lining: We have been given the unique gift of time. It is up to us to independently shape this period to further our health, education, and skillsets. In speaking to my colleagues, I learned that we have each approached this time differently, but we all agree on one notion: We have had to emerge as self-motivated and self-driven learners.
Here are some tips ophthalmology trainees can use to take advantage of this valuable time.
1. ZOOM WEBINARS AND VIRTUAL MEETINGS
Zoom has revolutionized the way we connect with friends, family, and colleagues. I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging in the plethora of Zoom webinars taking place. It has been a special opportunity to hear so many leaders in our field share their pearls of wisdom. This time has also promoted interinstitutional collaboration by allowing multiple academic centers, both nationally and internationally, to organize joint webinars and educate trainees. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have been effective tools for staying informed about the various webinars being offered.
I have also been avidly listening to and engaging in cornea department and grand rounds presentations from Duke University (where I am currently doing my cornea fellowship) as well as the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute (where I did my residency). These programs have helped me remain connected to my peers and mentors as they share innovative treatment approaches, management dilemmas, and surgical challenges. Additionally, Iqbal Ike K. Ahmed, MD, FRCSC, has been hosting twice-weekly Prism Eye Rounds, which include not only discussions of riveting anterior segment cases but also talks geared toward trainees on topics like how to evolve from a good to a great surgeon, personal growth through complex cases, fundamentals of cataract surgery, and iris suturing.
Various other webinars spearheaded by physicians and organizations (eg, the International Society of Refractive Surgery, All India Ophthalmology Society, and Oftalmo University, among many others) have offered educational opportunities on topics ranging from intrascleral haptic fixation techniques to endothelial keratoplasty and manual small-incision cataract surgery. Many of these programs are archived on YouTube or on societies’ websites, allowing viewers to reference surgical videos and talks at their convenience.
I have also thoroughly enjoyed listening to the COVID-19 coverage on Ophthalmology off the Grid. These webinars have given a platform to many voices during this pandemic and have given the ophthalmic community insights into our colleagues’ perspectives on the pathogenesis and treatment of this virus and its impact on the future of ophthalmology practices, telemedicine, and academic training programs.
Although many national meetings have been cancelled due to COVID-19, virtual meetings are now an option that all trainees should take advantage of. I enjoyed participating in the ASCRS Virtual Meeting as well as the BMC Virtual Spring Symposium, which is now archived on Eyetube. Programs like these allow viewers to access to up-to-date educational content as well as gain insights into changes in practice management that will affect those of us starting our first jobs in a few months.
2. SURGICAL SIMULATORS AND SURGICAL VIDEOS
For many trainees, surgical exposure during this time has been limited to emergent cases. As a cornea fellow, I have been caring for patients with severe corneal melts and traumatic globe ruptures, and I have had the opportunity to perform a handful of emergent full-thickness transplants, keratoprostheses, and globe repairs. However, many of the skills I wanted to hone over the last few months of fellowship, such as complex cataracts, secondary IOL cases, or LASIK procedures, have been put on hold. As such, I have taken the time to keep my mind fresh on these particular techniques in other ways.
Webinars and posts by leaders such as Thomas Oetting, MD, have emphasized the importance of surgical simulation. Over the past few weeks, I have used eye models to practice my iris suturing skills and secondary IOL implantation techniques (eg, iris-fixated IOLs and the Yamane technique). Eye models from companies such as SimulEYE and Bioniko have been particularly helpful for practicing these skills.
The beauty of ophthalmology is that we can learn by watching, and we are fortunate to have an abundance of online resources at our fingertips to reference. I have been watching surgical videos through Eyetube, Cataract Coach, and the AAO ONE Network. Although it is entirely possible to spend hours watching these videos, I watch for about 10 to 15 minutes, choosing a specific surgical technique or device that I want to refresh my memory on. I have also been watching my own surgical videos, mainly of cases that I remember struggling with or experiencing a complication during. I critically analyze my videos, identifying any errors and devising a plan for avoiding them or changing my approach in the future.
Although surgical simulation, eye models, and videos do not provide the same experience as physically being in the OR, they force participants to perform the mental exercise of rehearsing the steps of surgery and can help young surgeons to identify their strengths and weaknesses. These small steps will certainly help to refine our surgical skills and acumen for when we are back in action.
3. CATCH UP ON RESEARCH PROJECTS OR PRESENTATIONS
In the midst of fellowship, my to-do list continues to grow. In the past few weeks, however, I have been able to cross off several projects on my task list. I try to tackle a project every week (eg, a case report, research article, or journal club presentation), and, despite a healthy dose of procrastination, I have been able to accomplish my goals. I have found it imperative to maintain a sense of structure during these times, and prioritizing a few projects to complete is a realistic and feasible approach.
4. LEARN AND GROW PERSONALLY
During training, it can be extremely challenging to find time for oneself. Over the past few weeks, I have set not only academic goals but also personal ones. I have been dedicated to participating in FaceTime or Zoom calls with close family and friends. I have carved out time to take fun classes on Masterclass on topics like cooking and health economics, listen to new audio books on Audible, try different workout apps (eg, Down Dog Yoga and Peloton), and enjoy the outdoor nature trails in North Carolina. These activities have helped me to stay sane and balanced, and I encourage all trainees to try a new activity or hobby.
Perceiving this time as an opportunity rather than an obstacle has been instrumental in keeping up my spirits. By setting a daily academic goal and balancing it with a hobby or enjoyable activity, I have found the past few weeks to be productive and rewarding. I look forward to returning to normalcy, but, in the meantime, I will try my best to continue to strengthen my knowledge base, practice my surgical skills, and remain connected to ophthalmology.