Clinical, Featured, Housestaff Wellness, Psychiatry
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Connecting Virtually: One Resident Physician’s COVID-19 Week

It was a beautiful late winter Sunday, and my husband and I decided to drive to Plum Island, in the quaint sea town of Newburyport just north of Boston, for some bird-watching and ocean views. On the way, I was pleasantly surprised how the sun warmed the car enough for me to turn off the heat, and I thought about the week ahead.

I still needed to prepare a short presentation on delirium for morning rounds, but I was looking forward to seeing my patients at the hospital where I was currently rotating. I wondered how my sister-in-law was doing — her wedding was scheduled in just seven days, and she and her fiancé had already been faced with tough decisions because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was hard to imagine what they must be feeling, and I did not want to put more pressure on them by asking for details, knowing simply that they still planned to get married.

I tried to brush aside the thought that I may not be able to attend because of the virus and might have to watch virtually. There are some things that are meant to be done in person, and this was one of them. 

Several hours later, my week was already starting to look much different. I received a call (actually, three) from our chief resident telling me I would no longer be reporting to my rotation. Instead, I would now be part of a pool of residents, previously on rotations outside our home institution, who would cover the call schedule for a week at a time. I was scheduled to work from home on research and self-study for the week ahead, and take call starting the following Monday. I felt sad knowing I would not have a chance to say goodbye to the patients I had been working with for days, or to see them to the end of their course.

Shortly before heading to bed, I learned that the city where my sister-in-law planned to get married limited social gatherings to under 50 people, and more relatives would be unable to make the wedding. It was one of those days that felt like three; had I really been searching for ducks and owls earlier — careful to keep my six feet of social distance — and hoping that would be it?

Monday morning came, and my instincts for productivity, finely tuned during medical school, sheltered me from worrying too much about the uncertainty around me. I followed up on emails and projects that had been looming, read articles I had been meaning to for months and created a plan for the next few days. I found myself checking my email about as often as when I was a fourth-year medical student awaiting residency interview invites, as policies and procedures were constantly being updated. We learned that the wedding was now going to be with the wedding party and immediate family only, with a larger celebration to be rescheduled. I was sad for my sister-in-law, but also relieved that now the guest list would not include anyone elderly or immunosuppressed.

On Tuesday, my friends from medical school group-texted how COVID-19 was affecting our programs. I learned that elective surgeries and gynecology appointments were being rescheduled, and my friend in general surgery described a similar situation to mine, with a complete overhaul of the call system and a sizeable number of residents doing at-home learning to keep a healthy supply of doctors on hand. I shared that we were transitioning all our outpatient visits to telehealth, and I called the patients in my continuity clinic scheduled for the next afternoon to notify them of this change.  We also learned that the wedding would now be immediate family only, just around 10 people, making my husband and me the only ones to be coming from out-of-state. 

In some ways, Wednesday morning, our usual didactic day, was more familiar, as we had already transitioned to virtual classes the week prior to limit residents coming together from multiple different rotation sites. However, early in the day I learned that we now needed to notify occupational health and our supervisor of any domestic travel. My chief residents already knew I was planning on the trip and had scheduled vacation days to travel and be with family. I let my program director know, and though she referred me to occupational health, I was already beginning to worry about traveling and the impact this would have on others. Nervously, I called occupational health and learned that my hospital was not restricting domestic travel, for the time being. I wondered when this might change, and I thought about my upcoming call week and duty to be part of the “healthy” pool of residents. 

I put my worry on hold to call my patients for clinic, though, and found this to be surprisingly energizing. One of my patients started the conversation by saying how she did not usually feel comfortable talking on the phone, then proceeded to fill the next 30 minutes with lively conversation. All my patients commented on the toilet paper crisis. Initially unsure how I would handle outpatient therapy over the telephone, it felt good to know it was still effective and meaningful.  In a small corner of my apartment, I felt more connected to my work than I had all week.

However, a decision was still to be made. I talked to my husband and suggested making the 18-plus hour one-way drive instead of risking the airports, but we realized this was not very feasible. I mentioned to my mother-in-law that our plans were looking more uncertain, and I felt comforted when she told me they completely understood. I knew from talking with my family that their decision to go ahead with the wedding was not easy, and in any other situation they would postpone if I or my husband could not be there. But given the uncertain circumstances, they wanted to at least be married, and I understood that. With the increasing media coverage urging people to stay home and not wanting to jeopardize my ability to work, I realized what I had been trying to avoid. The next day, I let my family know that despite my biggest wish to be with them, I would not be making the trip. 

After making the decision, I was sad but less preoccupied. My husband and I finished our work for the day by mid-afternoon and bundled up for a hike at a nearby park, where we saw exactly three other humans. We ordered Indian food from our favorite restaurant and spent the evening watching a mix of Gilmore Girls reruns on Netflix and Bon Appetit videos on YouTube. Friday morning, we woke up before the sun, and I drove my husband to the airport. It felt strange not to be piling into a Lyft together instead, and he worried if he was making the right decision to travel. After dropping him off, I headed back home to finish my week of working from home. 

I was happy to wake up to the sun shining brightly on Saturday. I felt lonely but grateful to know my husband was with his family for his sister’s big day. Though it was still cold, I went for a short walk to the beach, thinking it strange how I was not supposed to be there. It was nice to see people walking around, though, and I smiled at them. I headed back to my apartment, changed into my bridesmaid dress, and joined the ceremony via FaceTime. In my in-laws’ bright little family room was my beautiful sister-in-law, and I felt my heart warm when she waved at me through the screen. 

Image source: Restless water by Tomasz Baranowski licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Priya Gearin, MD Priya Gearin, MD (1 Posts)

Resident Physician Contributing Writer

Harvard South Shore

Priya Gearin is a second-year psychiatry resident at Harvard South Shore in Massachusetts. Originally from the Midwest, she attended medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She plans to pursue a career in child and adolescent psychiatry.