The International Medical Association at the Keio University School of Medicine, commonly known as the IMA, is a student organization where sixth-year students spend their summer vacation engaging in medical activities and research in countries in South America, such as Brazil, to promote international exchange and cross-cultural understanding. The 43rd IMA delegation of 2020 became the first in more than forty years to be unable to travel abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The delegation consisted of Hirokazu Matsushima (sixth-year medical student and student leader), Tatsuya Nakamura (sixth-year medical student and treasurer), and Tomokazu Kurahori (sixth-year medical student and liaison coordinator). Left to their own devices, the three of them created the International Medical Student Meeting on COVID-19, which gave medical students from eight countries around the world an opportunity to connect online and discuss their thoughts on coping with circumstances brought on by the coronavirus. Here they share the struggles of organizing an international conference during the pandemic.
By the time 2020 began, plans were already well underway. As the students started arranging their tickets and their dreams were about to come true, COVID-19 began to cast a shadow over the entire world, and the delegation was forced to abandon their plans.
Devastated by the outcome, the three students even discussed relinquishing their title of "43rd delegation" if they could not go to Brazil and instead bestowing it onto students the following year.
With no way for them to know what Prof. Yamazaki was thinking, the three students were unable to come up with a Plan B between April and May. Radio silence ensued.
Then, with the declaration of a state of emergency, there was a drastic change in the students' usual academic environment. Even at the Keio School of Medicine, students attended online classes from morning to night. Unable to visit the operating theater, students supplemented their studies with videos of surgery.
That's when it suddenly hit them: "How are other medical students around the world experiencing the pandemic now?" There had been reports that in some countries, even medical students were treating COVID-19 patients. These IMA students thought that by learning about different situations worldwide, they might learn how medical students can help during an emergency like the current pandemic. They came up with the idea of an online summit called the "International Medical Student Meeting on COVID-19."
Of course, it's no easy task to build something out of nothing. "The hardest part was getting medical students from overseas involved. We were fortunate to have had contact with a university in Brazil, but we had to rely on faculty and friends to reach out to medical students from other countries." (Nakamura)
After a series of trial and error, medical students from a total of eight countries—including Japan, Brazil, the United States, Italy, Spain, Thailand, China, and South Korea—gathered for presentations and discussions over a two-day period on July 25 and 26, 2020.
"Sometimes in life, there are things that don't pay off no matter how hard you try, and it's not all about getting the results you expected or being praised by someone else for a job well done. But you can't regret not being rewarded or blame others for something not paying off. After all, one privilege of youth is an infinite source of energy. Even if things don't turn out the way you wanted, the experience of giving something your everything will prove useful in the future. That's why I'm proud to see these three students struggle through an unprecedented situation like this and end up creating the International Medical Student Meeting on COVID-19." (Yamazaki)
Nakamura explains, "There were so many struggles along the way and plenty of times when I wanted to give up. But the harder I worked, the more I became motivated to make sure that the meeting succeeded." He attests to the importance of getting things done. Kurahori also added, "I understood that even in difficult situations like today, there are things that can be done. I just want to say that I encourage our younger classmates to always try and never give up."
At the end of January 2021, the 44th IMA delegation held the 2nd International Medical Student Meeting on COVID-19. This meeting, which was launched by the three students of the 43rd IMA delegation, may continue far into the future, with conferences in person once international travel opens up again.
Matsushima says that the IMA is "an organization that allows its members to thoroughly pursue the 'origin of medicine' as individuals." He went on to describe his own experiences: "I think it would have been a wasted opportunity if I had just settled by saying, 'There's nothing we can do because of COVID-19.' Instead, I was able to think about what was exciting to me—what it was that I really want to achieve—without being swept up in the hysteria or trends of the times. Through the IMA, I was able to find the courage to take a leap of faith and heighten my awareness. I don't know when, but someday I'll definitely go to the Amazon I don't know when, but someday I’ll definitely go to the Amazon as a former IMA member."