By - August 26, 2021
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a recurring series of pathologists’ and laboratory professionals’ reflections and stories about work and life throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
As this deadly pandemic has struck our world and caused pain and suffering to so many, it has felt like treading water in the middle of the ocean, looking for the closest shore, and not knowing which way to go.
In the beginning, it felt unreal. This mysterious pneumonia that was taking lives on the other side of the world eventually caused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start testing passengers coming into JFK and other international airports. As SARS-CoV-2 cases surged in the coastal states of the U.S., the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The very next day, March 12, 2020, I attended a lecture on CAR-T therapy, which would be the last time I would see a large group of scientists in close quarters, unmasked, for a while.
My laboratory science and public health training were more relevant than ever, and I knew I had to take action—but what to do?
As an educator, I work gathering ideas and facilitating their transference utilizing pedagogy and evidence. I could find information and share it with others to help explain what was known, what was unknown, and what we could expect based on my experience and knowledge of immunology and laboratory testing. For example, in late March of 2020, a friend who is a member of a Native American tribe requested my advice on the types of tests that Indian Health Services in her hometown were considering to track exposures and undertake contact-tracing efforts. With limited resources, an adequate strategy needed to be put in place. I provided feedback on the tests they were looking at and the different platforms available to detect SARS-CoV-2 infection, with pros and cons of each based on literature from manufacturers, federal, and international entities. Playing a role in supporting decisions that would affect hundreds of people living many miles away made me thankful to have laboratory science training.
It was then that I realized that a degree of certainty derived from facts and data could help ease fear and serve as tiny islands to rest upon as I continued searching, in the vast sea of misinformation, for a safe shore.
Another opportunity presented itself as COVID-19 cases spiked in the Midwest in late September of 2020. I was a guest of Juntos Radio, an initiative from the Centro JUNTOS in Kansas supported by the National Library of Medicine and NIH that aims to share relevant information with the Latinx community in the greater Kansas City area. In discussing common myths and misconceptions regarding vaccines, we wanted to address concerns from the community about vaccine safety and the benefits of vaccination when facing this deadly strain of the coronavirus. Our conversation was powerful and timely. Just two months later, Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca released the results of their vaccine efficacy studies, and efforts to vaccinate the population in the U.S. were underway.
In the midst of all this, an old-timey chain email landed in my inbox. The message titled "Spreading Kindness" came from one of my CLS students with a well-known quote from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings:
"'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo.
'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'"
She accompanied this quote with the words: "I appreciate who you are and all that you do!"
Even today, many months later, this message of support gives me the courage to work hard, share knowledge, dispel misinformation, and increase trust in science. I can set a course and trust that we are getting closer to the certainty of a world where COVID-19 deaths are few and far between.
The pain, exhaustion, and uncertainty of this pandemic are still with us. I know it is not over, and we have a ways to go. One test result at a time, one vaccine at a time, with kindness, we move forward together. And that gives me hope.
AJMC Staff. (2021, January 1). A Timeline of COVID-19 Developments in 2020. The American Journal of Managed Care. https://www.ajmc.com/view/a-timeline-of-covid19-developments-in-2020
Tolkien, J. R. R. (2017). The Lord of the Rings.
Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Kansas