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For some doctors, pandemic means accelerated career launch — or truncated retirement

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the U.S., officials are warning that there are not enough medical professionals available to meet the growing needs of patients. The shortage has led to the easing of some regulations, enabling medical students to graduate early and retired doctors to return to practice. Lisa Desjardins shares some of their stories from this all-hands-on-deck moment.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the pandemic spreads, state officials are sounding the alarm that not enough doctors and nurses are available to meet the growing needs of patients.

    That's meant an all-hands-on-deck approach in some parts of the country. Rules and regulations are now being lifted or changed to allow medical students to graduate early and to enable retired doctors to return to the profession.

    We heard from many of them.

    And Lisa is with us again to tell their stories.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This week, desperate pleas for medical reinforcements went out from many of the nation's governors.

  • Governor Gavin Newsom:

    Administrators, doctors, nurses, we are calling on you to step up and step in and meet this moment.

  • Governor Ron DeSantis:

    We need to have folks who are willing to come return to service.

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo:

    If you don't have a health care crisis in your community, please come help us in New York now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said one million additional health care professionals would soon be needed there, a state that has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

  • Jane Bedell:

    I'm volunteering because this is the way that I can continue to give back to New York City. I'm a lifelong New Yorker.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dr. Jane Bedell spent years treating sick patients during the AIDS crisis, and for several decades was a primary care physician and public health official in the Bronx. She retired in February, and was set for a trip to Wyoming with her son this week.

  • Jane Bedell:

    I had planned kind of a very unstructured, kind of lackadaisical approach to retirement, honestly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But two weeks ago, the 63 year-old recently scrapped those plans, and instead signed up for the New York City Medical Reserve Corps.

  • Jane Bedell:

    I feel compelled, even in retirement, to step a little bit forward in this moment and to give back in whatever small way that I can, and to join with my city in this response.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Another potential source of help, immigrant doctors. Some states, like New York and New Jersey, are granting immigrant doctors who fall short of some requirements temporary licenses.

    The Migration Policy Institute estimates some 165,000 health workers have skills who were foreign-born have skills that aren't fully utilized because of rules requiring them to re-license or retrain.

    And in states with some of the highest number of cases, medical schools are now rushing to graduate students early, and assigning them to hospitals most in need.

  • Lauren Colwell:

    I just virtually graduated from medical school.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On Tuesday, Lauren Colwell became a doctor while sitting in front of a computer for the University of Massachusetts Medical School's entirely online graduation.

    She missed the chance to walk across the stage in a cap and gown, but her training will be put to immediate use in one of the university's health care facilities.

  • Lauren Colwell:

    I think I'm full of emotions. I don't know if I should be excited, happy.

  • Taylor Shortsleeve:

    This definitely isn't how I imagined it, but I'm really excited.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dr. Taylor Shortsleeve is one of Colwell's classmates. He feels both enthusiasm and uncertainty right now.

  • Taylor Shortsleeve:

    My mom's an M.P., and she does primary care.

    She's particularly worried about me because, you know, the mother-son relationship. She doesn't want me to come down with the coronavirus. I had asthma as a kid. So I'm a little worried myself.

    But, other than that, you know, I kind of quell everyone's fears by saying, we're going to be protected, and this is my calling. This is what I want to do.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Newly-graduated doctors likely won't see the most critically ill patients, but some other young doctors are already in the thick of it and are being put to the test.

  • Reina Gonzalez:

    Nobody ever thinks that they're going to go into residency and get hit by a pandemic.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Reina Gonzalez came to New York from Puerto Rico two years ago to start her residency in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital.

  • Reina Gonzalez:

    I have been receiving a lot of these patients. It's really tough, because they come really short of breath. They really say, like, I can't breathe, I can't control this fever.

    Being with that first patient, and I'm like, I really want to help you, but at the same time, I don't know what you have. I don't know how this can affect me, my life, my loved ones.

    It's the uncertainty, like not knowing. We're doctors. We're researchers. We're scientists. We're used to knowing, having the answers. And not knowing, it's something we're not used to. At least, I'm not used to it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For older doctors, like Dr. Bedell, some of the personal risks are even higher, especially since she's a recent cancer survivor with hypertension.

  • Jane Bedell:

    My family put a lot of work into my recovery, for which I am forever thankful, and my neighbors and my friends. And this might just piss them off if I got sick.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's why some have questioned whether it's prudent for retired doctors to come back.

    Dr. Bedell says she will likely not be assigned to high-risk jobs, but instead offer support to take pressure off of other doctors.

  • Jane Bedell:

    I don't want to clog up an emergency room spot or hospital bed or, you know, oh, my goodness, no, do not have anyone on a ventilator that you could have prevented from using that unbelievable valuable resource.

  • Maggie Bogardus:

    These will be our first days and weeks as doctors.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But for graduating students, like Columbia's Maggie Bogardus, the crisis offers a unique opportunity. And she says she's grateful to serve in this moment.

  • Maggie Bogardus:

    What I'm going to take with me is how much it brought people specifically in the health world together.

    I have been seeing and hearing really incredible things and unprecedented things, in terms of what people are willing to do and how they're willing to help.

    That's why we're here. And that's why we're doing what we're doing. I think it's a really poignant reminder of that as we're starting off on our careers.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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