Lessons learned: W&M students working in healthcare reflect on a year of pandemic

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She pulls off all her personal protective equipment, washes her hands, showers off, changes clothes, throws out any food or drink she may have touched — and greets her family.

“I know a lot of people who were scared to even live with their families when they’re working in a hospital room, because they didn’t want to bring it home,” said Ford, a William & Mary health sciences major who graduated in December.

For the past five years, Ford has worked her way through college as an emergency room scribe at a few local hospitals. In her senior year, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the nation, she managed medical scribes at hospitals in Hampton and Newport News.

A scribe is responsible for recording the details of a patient’s clinical history, current health issues, diagnoses and any medical procedures that are performed or prescribed, Ford explained. The scribe serves a vital role of being the ears and eyes in the room, so that a physician can focus squarely on treating the patient.

“I lead teams at two hospitals,” Ford said. “During the pandemic, that has been really difficult because I had people that didn’t want to come to work, which, I mean, it’s scary. I don’t blame them for that, but we had to learn to balance the fear and the need to do our jobs.”

That balance between fear and the vital work ahead is one that has been familiar to healthcare professionals throughout the world this past year. For students graduating into the industry, the landscape has shifted dramatically, revealing fault lines in America’s healthcare system that these newest professionals are uniquely positioned to witness, study and address.

Matthew Tucker ’22 started volunteering as an EMT with the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department his freshman year at William & Mary. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of W&M News)
First responder, last responder

Matthew Tucker ’22 started volunteering as an EMT with the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department his freshman year at William & Mary. He’s now the collegiate lieutenant, responsible for managing and training college students on the operations of emergency medical services provided by the local fire station.

“I help train incoming college students on operations of the fire station, the ambulance, the equipment, all of those sorts of thing,” he said.

This winter, as COVID-19 case numbers surged nationwide, Tucker was one of a handful of student volunteers who worked as first responders, supporting the career EMT staff at the fire station.

“I know that the staff paramedics were especially burnt out. They couldn’t trade shifts, they couldn’t utilize their vacation time, so we were able to provide resources to support them in getting some relief,” Tucker said. “As students, we were able to see things that we haven’t seen for 100 years. The amount of learning that can be done in that environment is astounding, and it has given me tremendous perspective on my future medical path.”

Tucker said, as a student concentrating in public health, he’s been particularly aware of the health disparities in the community he serves. It was immediately clear to him that the vast majority of emergency calls were coming from low-income neighborhoods.

“I believe that we’re often responding to places where the healthcare system has failed, where we are their primary care provider, a call to 911, taking them to the emergency room,” he said. “These disparities have always been there, but we’re seeing them very plainly now, how socioeconomic status, job accessibility, food insecurity, all these different things affect someone’s risk to COVID and ultimately affect people’s health status. We’ve not always been in tune to seeing that before the pandemic.”

Sophie Kopec ’21 spent this past summer analyzing data on experimental, early-stage clinical trials. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of Stephen Salpukas/ W&M News)
On the cutting edge

Sophie Kopec ’21 spent this past summer analyzing data on experimental, early-stage clinical trials for the cell and gene medicine division of the non-profit Alliance for Regenerative Medicine. Explaining what she does is a key part of the job.

“It’s such an up-and-coming field that there are negative trigger words, all this stigma, especially around cell therapy,” she said. “So, part of my job was to look at data from all of these regenerative medicine clinical trials to identify the most promising ones. Then we translate that data into the commercial field to help show consumers that this is real, valid, verified science. It’s not some kind of scam.”

Kopec describes regenerative medicine as using the body’s own functions to train it to fix itself.

“For example, take gene therapy, in that case you have editing technology like CRISPR, where you can go in and actually edit the body’s genes and reprogram them to respond to the treatment and then body essentially heals itself,” she said.

Kopec entered William & Mary with her sights hard-set on chemistry. It wasn’t until her junior year, when she was working her way down the list of general education requirements, that she enrolled in a “Foundations of Epidemiology” course with Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences Carrie Dolan.

“After taking that class, everything changed and I shifted my focus to public health,” Kopec said. “I’ll always be grateful to William & Mary for that. I came into school with tunnel vision. I was going to go to med school and work in scrubs or in a lab, but my education broadened my perspective. Actually, it did more than that, it revealed my passion to me. Had I not been forced off track by the general education requirements, I would have never found this incredible spark and pursued this passion that I have now.”

Looking to the future

Graduation can be an anxiety-inducing milestone, even in the best of times. For those entering careers in the healthcare industry, the uncertainty of the pandemic has added another layer of stress — and hope for overcoming the challenges of the past.

Next month, Kopec starts her new job as a clinical research coordinator at Children’s National Hospital in D.C. She’ll be serving in the neuro-oncology unit, working with children who have not responded to traditional therapy measures and providing experimental treatment that is often the last and only resort left. Her first in-person day at the hospital is scheduled for June 1.

“We’ll be doing clinical trials that offer more therapeutic approaches to treating these late-stage tumors,” she said. “Even if the end result for some of these patients may be death, at least we know that we did everything in our power to help them and give them another chance to keep fighting and have another opportunity at life.”

When Ford began her studies at William & Mary, she was interested in emergency medicine. She wanted to learn to respond in crisis to keep people alive. Now, after all she has witnessed in this year of pandemic, she hopes to study palliative care. She wants to learn how to help people live and die with dignity.

“In medical school, they teach you how to save people, but what happens when you can’t save them, when there is nothing else you can do?” she said. “It’s not a conversation we’re often prepared for, but it’s so important. In a lot of ways, how can you know how you want to live if you don’t know how you want to die?

“So many families this year have had to make those choices for family members and they don’t know what choices those family members would want to make for themselves,” she added. “They’ve had to make those choices, because those conversations haven’t been had. I want to be there to help have those hard conversations.”

After graduating from William & Mary, Tucker plans to go to medical school to obtain Master of Public Health and Medical Doctor degrees. He plans to work primarily with people experiencing homelessness and be able to treat them holistically.

“If there’s one main thing that I think that we’ve all learned this pandemic, it’s that health is incredibly complex,” Tucker said. “Truly, everything that we do impacts our health, every societal factor, institutional factor, personal factor that’s put into place influences somebody’s health.”

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