Students at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso train on a medical mannequin. (Tommy Morelos/Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso)

Christian Castro had a simple goal for his life: to “make people feel better.” Originally, he thought that goal could be achieved through comedy by making people laugh.

“Laughter can make people forget their pain and sorrow,” Castro said.

But then he started to learn about medicine and realized it was the ultimate key to making people feel better.

“Medicine is a tangible and physical thing that can cure people’s illness and not just the way they feel,” he said.

Over the past four years Castro has learned how crucial the field of medicine is. He’s not alone. 

Medical and nursing schools across the country have seen a rise in applications. Health educators attribute the rise to one reason: COVID-19.

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At Texas Tech’s El Paso campus, the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing has seen an approximate 25% increase in applications between last spring and this spring semester, according to data provided by Texas Tech officials. The Paul L. Foster School of Medicine has seen a 19% increase between the previous fall semester and this upcoming fall, according to provided data.

Across the nation, similar trends follow. According to the Texas Health Education Service, medical schools in Texas saw a 33% increase in applications in June 2020

While the world pandemic has brought devastation to many, it also has been a source of inspiration for others.

Stephanie Woods

Dr. Cynthia Perry, assistant professor and assistant academic dean of admission for the school of medicine, believes that many students “felt drawn to do something.”

“In this pandemic, there’s been this sense of helplessness besides staying home, social distancing and wearing our masks,”  Perry said. “A lot of students felt like pursuing a career in medicine is one way they can help to address what’s going on nationally and be a part of the solution now and in the future.”

Dr. Stephanie Woods, assistant dean and professor of the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing, agrees.

Cynthia Perry

“COVID struck and we started seeing the impact of nurses immediately,” Wood said. She said that the media helped to illustrate the work of nurses.

“The constant that you can be in a career field that is considered to be heroic especially during the times of a national and international pandemic is quite attractive to people,” she said. “I think that people want to do meaningful things and want to be seen as providing an essential service.”

Medical student Christian Castro has already seen how his work as an aspiring  general surgeon has benefited his hometown.

“I don’t think I could have predicted what would have unfolded during my four years here,” Castro said.

He recalled how students are often told that medical school will be some of the most difficult and daunting years of their lives. For him, he found it not to be the case.

“They teach you how to treat diseases, how to study and learn, but while you’re learning all of that, the real world goes on,” Castro said.

That became evident to him during the Walmart mass shooting on Aug. 3, 2019.

“I think that was the first time I realized that there is a world around us that is not going to stop or slow down just because I’m in medical school,” Castro said.

After finishing a trauma service program the day before, Castro found himself the next day driving to the University of Medical Center to help in any way he could.

“It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a doctor and just a medical student, I wanted to help,” Castro said.

The presence of COVID-19 has also brought a reality of the world to him, just as a student.  

“The difference between the August 3rd incident and this COVID incident is that August 3rd unraveled in a matter of hours with some lasting effects,” Castro said. “But this COVID pandemic has been going on for almost a year and half and it may never go away.”

He said studying to become a doctor during both a local and world crisis has inevitably changed and shaped his approach to becoming a physician.

“I have these experiences before even having the title of doctor,” Castro said. “It’s like having more information early on so that when I do hit an inevitable tragedy again, I’ll be able to say that I know how to handle it because I’ve handled it before.”

Medical students learn care techniques at El Paso’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine. (Tommy Morelos/Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso)

First year nursing student Michelle Diaz says she always knew she wanted to become a nurse.

After being surrounded by health workers like her father, who was a nurse, and grandfather, who was a doctor, the career path to become a nurse “made sense.” But she says the COVID pandemic has reinforced her reasoning.

“COVID has really brought out the passion for nursing,” Diaz said.

She said  she wants to be there for people during hard moments. From her own family experience, she is motivated by the nurses who treat her father, who has stage four cancer.

“He went to the hospital in September and we couldn’t see my dad at all,” she said. “He had surgery on his spinal cord and it was the most heartbreaking experience to not be there for your loved one. But the nurses would call us and update us and he would call saying ‘they’re motivating me and getting me up.’”

Cover photo: Students at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso train on a medical mannequin. (Tommy Morelos/Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso)

Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, through a partnership with Open Campus Media. She is a 2020 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.