My COVID Story

Author: Tamara Bodnar
Submitted by: Kerensa Peterson and Mary Lander

March 13 was the day that everything changed. Chicago’s shelter-in-place would go into effect a week later, but that Friday I watched as all of my sources of income vanished thanks to COVID-19. Everything I was doing - preparing for a spring full of standardized patient work, music directing a production of Mary Poppins for a children's theatre, rehearsing for a cabaret, and gearing up for a busy audition season - came to a screeching halt. I'll never forget that feeling of uncertainty, the loss of control, the panic settling in of how quickly everything had gone down in flames and how I was going to get through it. I remember going over to a friend and fellow SP’s apartment for a night of baking, the mood somber as we processed the news of cancelled projects, lost paychecks and a precarious future together.

I've been a standardized patient for over four years now, and I’m incredibly fortunate to work at two amazing institutions that really care about their SPs. We ended up still getting paid for cancelled projects, and I was so impressed with how quickly both schools were able to move most remaining projects to a virtual format. After doing my first “telehealth” encounter via Zoom, I was reinvigorated - this could work! And work really well! The days fell into a sort of rhythm, me sitting at my hastily assembled COVID workstation (a.k.a my dining room table), tuning out a cat desperate for my attention and my boyfriend working remotely in the next room as I portrayed cases or proctored exams. I didn’t drive for weeks (a welcome respite after having commuted about four hours a day between all of my pre-COVID engagements). I worked out or went on walks during my lunch breaks, taking in the spring like never before (I never noticed how many magnolia trees are in my neighborhood before!) It was a period I called my “pandemic peace”; life slowed down, and I welcomed it.

Summer is always a slow season for SP work, and I had been meaning to find a seasonal job way before the pandemic hit - but it was even more necessary once everything shut down. I found a full-time office position at a moving company that covered my rent and bills. As school is starting up again in a hybrid format, it is somewhat nerve-wracking to think of doing in-person encounters again. I appreciate all of the planning that has gone into figuring out how to continue our work safely and all of the precautions now in place, but it's hard not to feel a little uneasy. I've done one in-person SP encounter so far, back in June, and it was surreal. I only saw one student that day, and she was sitting six feet away, fully garbed in a face shield, mask and gloves. I feel like I didn't fully relax into my role until about halfway through the encounter - I was so keenly aware of how my job had been transformed - but then the familiarity of the experience came back.

I'm excited to see all of the possibilities that will blossom due to the new virtual format. We're so busy at the education centers that going virtual may allow for more projects to be run at any given time. At the same time, it's been hard seeing some of my favorite projects cancelled or postponed. I don't just feel that loss for myself, but for the students, too. We provide them with so many different patient experiences to prepare them for just about anyone they may encounter in their professional lives. What if they miss out somehow because they never got to practice talking with a suicidal patient in the ER, or a mother torn about whether or not to vaccinate her baby, or a patient with a sudden severe headache who’s embarrassed to bring up what she was doing when the headache came on? What does empathy look like when you can't hand someone a box of tissues, or gently place your hand on their shoulder, or even look them straight in the eyes? What will learners have to adjust, knowing that all their patient can see is their doctor’s eyes or their face on a screen, when body language is almost 60% of all communication? Telehealth has really taken off and is here to stay, and I’m glad our students will get practice with it now. It comes with a whole new set of challenges, but from the virtual encounters I’ve done so far, I really see them rising to the occasion.

I treasure my work as an SP not only for practical reasons, like the flexible schedule, but for its meaningfulness. I love going to work knowing I'm going to make a difference, to help a future medical professional be a little more empathetic, a little more present, a little more prepared. I know that though it may look a little different now, the heart of what we do as SPs hasn’t changed.

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