Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I kept myself sane by writing “Notes from the 13th Floor” — a series of moments I wished I could share with the outside world and the kind I never wanted to forget.
I never caught COVID-19, neither did my husband or son who was born in the midst of mask mandates and new vaccine rollouts. While we knew people who caught it, we were fortunate not to lose any friends or family to the virus.
Instead, we suffered only the social consequences of working in health care at a time where medical professionals and scientists were hailed as “healthcare heroes” or “sheeple” without much of an in-between.
Day 96: Enrolled a pregnant mother in the REDACTED trial. She had to be intubated. The baby was born via cesarean and taken to the NICU. We will not be told how they are, but I hope she makes it.
I had loved ones calling me a Nazi on social media. Friends stopped talking to me when they could not hug me during my pregnancy. Patients were combative when asked to wear a mask in the clinics. Life, while lucky, was also difficult.
Day 80: I had to block a friend on Facebook for comparing me to an SS agent when I said surgical masks were not full of chemicals and were not giving anyone cancer. The response was they “know what they smell.” I am so tired.
It was during this time that I started writing. Partially to process the loneliness we were all experiencing, and partially to ensure I would remember what it was like to work in clinical trials at the height of a global pandemic. Some journal entries I kept for myself, but others I shared on social media, lumped together under the heading “Notes from the 13th Floor.”
It was at a small desk on the 13th floor of the local hospital that I helped run some of the first and largest clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. I organized folder after folder of patient data and called patients for follow up visits. I also ran labs from the clinical trials office to the emergency department and then back to the laboratory.
Day 120: Vaccine trials are ongoing, no microchips in sight. I can tell the ER docs are getting overrun so I hope this works.
Throughout a challenging pregnancy, I pushed myself to get to work for 6 a.m. procedures and stayed late to prep for IRB oversight visits. I walked miles through the hospital in an N95 mask that I stored in a brown paper sack beneath my desk due to shortages. I wrote to remember the moments that no one else experienced.
More than anything, I remember the patients I could not write about, the stories I was not allowed to put on social media. The mothers who did not get to go home with their newborn babies, the elderly couples who died without getting to be by one another’s side, the healthy, young athletes who were admitted to the ICU due to a virus many in my community were arguing was not real. The victories were celebrated, but the losses left a permanent mark.
Day 201: There is nothing worse in my day then going to make a patient update and finding out they died in hospital via EPIC pop-up.
Day 36: An older woman was stopped from joining the trial last week but her son said we just wanted money from Big Pharma and we were going to kill her. She died today in the ICU.
Years later, COVID-19 still lingers. Somehow, thanks to my vaccine, subsequent boosters and a commitment to masking in clinical situations, I still have not contracted SARS-CoV-2. But even with time, my relationships with family, friends and a community that split over opinions on vaccines and public health measures still have not recovered. I will not get a Christmas card from some people I used to believe would be in my life forever; my parents have never met their grandson and I keep room for that grief even now.
The impact of the pandemic on scientific communication has changed the way I live and communicate with others. I no longer feel the need to be right in every argument. I pick my battles carefully and recognize when others are not interested in a good faith discussion on health care or other topics. I strive to become an expert that people rely on, that people can trust, and who can admit when the answers are not available.
Although I left clinical research to start medical school, the lessons I learned on the 13th floor will stay with me for the rest of my career. While there are days I grieve the relationships I lost, I am grateful for the physicians who taught me, the colleagues I leaned on during the hard times, and the patients who were willing to participate in research to help others they would never meet.
Day 196: I got my COVID vaccine today at 7mo pregnant. I cannot tell anyone we know because they all think women who get it are trying to kill their babies. So far I have zero side effects aside from a feeling of relief when I walk through the hospital. I joined a study where women who are pregnant or nursing and get the vaccine can report the outcome. Hopefully it means more people will get vaxxed. It makes me feel like a small part of all this bullying will be worth it.
WiTTY Wednesdays is an initiative showcasing the works of our Writers-in-Training Program writing interns. WiT is a year-long internship for budding medical student writers. Our interns receive intensive, one-on-one mentoring from our medical student program directors and publish at least 3 pieces during the course of their internship. If you are interested in learning more about the program, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.