Vanessa Zannella is a resident physician in Internal Medicine at the University of Toronto and a Systems Leadership and Innovation student at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation
I am scared. Every day, I arrive at the hospital to look after patients who could have COVID-19. I pretend to cover this fear with a protective mask. It allows me to hide my emotions as I carry on with my clinical duties.
I am being asked to work in hospitals that I have never worked in before. I get swabbed for COVID-19 every time I have the slightest suggestive symptom. When I am busy at work, I feel guilty for not connecting virtually with my family. When I am home, I feel guilty for the colleagues I leave behind at work. Throughout the pandemic, I have felt embarrassed to reflect on the emotional exhaustion of caring for patients. But one morning after a 26 hour shift, as I removed my mask and stepped outside the hospital, I let my role as a physician go, and cried my way home.
In time, I learned that I was not the only one shedding tears. Slowly, my senior mentors and educators shared their fears (and tears) with me too. Through their collective stories, I felt a sense of community. It became clear that most physicians, regardless of their stage of training, fear that they may be facing a career-defining moment in the care of patients with COVID-19, or even possibly, a life or death-defining moment.
One of the added stresses of this pandemic is that I am still being evaluated by my residency program on the competencies required of our profession. I and others worry that those who share their vulnerabilities, emotions and fears might be perceived as weak or burned out. But we are neither.
The simple act of wearing a mask helps me conceal the emotions worn on my face, but it doesn’t change the way I feel. I’ve slowly learned that our masks make us physicians, but our emotions make us people. And throughout a pandemic, it’s okay to be a ‘person’ too.
By being honest and sharing my emotions of COVID-19 with senior mentors and educators, I’ve become a more relatable person. I believe this is the first step towards building stronger physician relationships and an even stronger profession.
As a resident physician, I am motivated to work amidst the pandemic because I am proud to be able to support our patients, our educators and our country in its most vulnerable time. My feelings and fears are real, but they are not alone; my mentors and educators will continue to share their powerful stories with me. Together, we can overcome the fear of COVID-19 and by revealing ourselves as a better ‘person’, come out of this as even better physicians.
Thank you to Dr. Kieran Quinn for his wisdom, creativity and mentorship in supporting my piece.