NUTLEY, New Jersey (WABC) -- A brand new medical school in New Jersey on Friday marked its first-ever "Match Day" -- the day when those about to graduate find out where they will be treating their first patients as they complete their residency training.
But the inaugural Match Day at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in Nutley was even more special because these graduates-to-be are the COVID Class, as they were in the midst of earning their medical degrees when the pandemic upended their "normal."
"Your heart's racing, you're just like, 'Where am I going to go?'" graduate Melissa Bernal said. "We know that we matched already. We have no idea where we're going in the country."
The 2022 graduating class has the distinction of two high honors: They are the very first group of students to go through the four-year program at the newly established private medical school, and they're also considered the first to deal with a true global pandemic.
"They were able to experience it," Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Bob Garrett said. "Understand what it took to treat patients."
They were pulled out of clinical settings for a time, and many had to pivot to finish their classes virtually.
"At first, we didn't have enough protective gear," Dean Jeffrey Boscamp said. "We had to pull them out of the hospitals. We got them back in."
Still, it didn't stop them from getting involved on the front lines, finding innovative ways to get first-hand experience in places need.
"It was hard," graduate Joseph Torres said. "I did one of my rare rotations at Jacksonville in Florida, where COVID was rampant."
From working at a vaccine clinic in East Rutherford to assisting COVID treatment trials, it wasn't the medical experience they're most grateful for -- it's that they were able to help people.
"I saw a lot of COVID," Torres said. "Too much, and I saw what it did to people and it toughened me up."
For all these students, Match Day represented the end of one very special chapter in their medical journeys, and the beginning of the next.
"Seeing all the patients come in, COVID positive cases, was life changing," graduate Lainey Bukowiec said.
And through it all, they persevered.
"I felt like I was actually contributing to the fight against COVID during it all," graduate Tanner Corse said. "It was really rewarding, a good experience, just trying to save lives."
Their families and loved ones were equally grateful and proud.
"I'm just ready for the world to see how terrific they are," Vice Dean Miriam Hoffman said.
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