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Meaning in Medicine: How the pandemic is shining light on the importance of our work

During this global health crisis, Dr. Ann Kellams shares her thoughts on being part of a dedicated community of medical professionals. Dr. Kellams is Professor of Pediatrics and Vice-Chair of Clinical Affairs for the Department of Pediatrics at the  School of Medicine at the University of Virginia. She helped bring to UVA The Healer’s Art, a course for medical students about humanism and meaning in medicine, and has been teaching on these topics since 2004.

When I was originally asked to write a piece for Thoughts From the Lawn about meaning in medicine, I felt very honored and was thinking of talking about why I always wanted to be a doctor, and in particular, about what drew me to pediatrics. I also considered writing about how I came to be involved in research related to breastfeeding and safe infant sleep and why that is so important, or perhaps about what a privilege it is to accompany families on their “journeys” as they become new parents and welcome new babies into the world. When I was originally asked to write a piece, I was not aware of nor do I think any of us could have imagined how our worlds would change in just a matter of days as we face the global COVID-19 pandemic. As I write this, though, I realize that there is no better example of the meaning and importance of our work.

As physicians and other health care providers, we come to our profession of service often from a deep sense of wanting to make a difference in the world, hoping to use our intellect and skills to help care for people, and using science and technology as well as our humanity to treat and cure conditions so people can be healthy and live their best lives. This meaning in medicine, what brings us to this work and keeps us doing this work, is summed up by one of my mentors, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, as the “service of life.” This sense of service anchors us and keeps us grounded in the midst of the chaos, paperwork, prior authorizations, and long hours both seeing patients and documenting in the electronic medical record, on a regular day.

University of Virginia Hospital

Now, in this unprecedented time of uncertainty, fear, concern for running out of resources such as ventilators and protective equipment and for our own safety as a result of the pandemic, I am witnessing examples of the expressions of the meaning of our work by the droves. At every level, I have seen the kindness of humanity, the commitment of our workforce, the flexibility of leadership and frontline caregivers, and the appreciation from our community and those we care for. Within a few days, all of our meetings were converted to virtual platforms, and a special COVID-19 Clinic was created from the ground up, displacing other clinical services who complied without complaint. Emergency discussions have been announced just hours before they take place, and have been conducted with 100% attendance. COVID-19 Clinic slots for this additional daily clinical operation (8 am-8 pm, 7 days/week) were instantly filled with volunteer physicians both adult and pediatric, and when the decision was made to double the adult providers for each shift, those were filled too. Working in this clinic myself, I have witnessed the caring and compassion of all of the staff as they field a multitude of questions from worried patients and family members and clinical staff and get those who need higher levels of care to the right place.

Many members of our health care community have been taking personal time to dispel rumors and myths and provide evidence-based information on social media. Volunteers who are willing to provide child care so nurses and doctors and pharmacists and respiratory therapists, etc. can still come to work have stepped up. Colleagues are committing to working extra shifts and overnight call so that those who are older in age or are immunocompromised can be protected. Clinics have adapted within a few days to a different type of triaging and scheduling the use of telemedicine services. Hospital protocols have had to be changed by the day, and staff is committed to not only keeping up with the changes but also communicating them in a caring way to the families and loved ones. Leaders have been walking around to check on everyone and expressing gratitude and optimism at every opportunity.

At no time in my life have I been more proud to be a physician. I have the privilege of working alongside a team that reminds me daily of the meaning and importance of this work.