The inspiring women physicians of the COVID-19 pandemic

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I am a professor and cardiac anesthesiologist who practices at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Like the majority of health centers across the world, our leaders are working around the clock to treat COVID-19 in our community. We on the front lines are preparing, educating ourselves daily on rapidly changing plans and treatments, and working to keep ourselves, our patients, and our families safe from harm.

When I am not taking care of critically ill patients in the operating room, I have the privilege of leading a large community of 11K women physicians. The women in this group are many things: surgeons, critical care physicians, pediatricians, radiologists, infectious disease specialists, neonatologists, primary care physicians, and OB/GYNs. Like you, they wear many hats; many are mothers, executives, professors, medical directors, business owners, community leaders, and now…teaching assistants, as they are schooling children at home.

Just like you, they have all been affected by COVID-19. I am writing to you from someone who watches them, who reads their daily stories, and who is inspired by them.

Some of the women physicians are at home, or in the hospital, suffering from COVID-19. Most are on the front-lines triaging and treating patients who have symptoms associated with the coronavirus. Some of them are in board rooms advocating for safe practices. Some are in ICUs and leading massive operations to change ORs to critical care beds and set up screening tents.

Many of them are small business owners who have had to furlough employees (one physician shared she had to layoff 65 of her clinic’s employees, and she is significantly struggling with anxiety and worry for her work family). Many of the physicians report losing significant income and taken pay cuts, and are unsure of how they will recover financially.

Many of the women physicians are finding themselves in new roles, doing things like telehealth, or taking care of patients in areas of medicine they’ve not practiced in years. Some of them are pregnant physicians who find themselves not walking into areas of exposure alone – but also with their unborn child. Many of them are surgeons and oncologists, who report delivering devastating news to patients who are alone in the hospital due to policies restricting visitors.

They sit longer. They hold hands. They find themselves being not only doctor, but also family member.

The majority are coming home each night helping their children with schoolwork. While conducting telemedicine or video conferencing about important treatment plans on one screen, they are helping with algebra problems on another screen with a child next to them. They tell about finishing a long day at the hospital, decontaminating themselves before touching anyone, and then engaging in their second job, keeping their families safe and well.

As their leader, I have watched them in awe. I can report what they are NOT doing; they are not complaining. They are not whining. They are not withdrawing or shirking from responsibilities. They are rising to each task required of them. They are multitasking as physicians and mothers and caregivers and leaders like nothing I have ever seen. And despite their exhaustion, they continue to show up and work each day despite experiencing bias or their having their ideas ignored in the workplace.

The physicians share stories of presenting an innovative idea or data-driven concern to protect their colleagues during COVID-19 and be discounted, while watching a male colleague suggest the same idea and have it accepted. Some have been called aggressive, or “emotional,” when advocating for personal protective equipment or safe medical practices. Many women physicians, even those with infectious disease expertise, are struggling to be heard and lead as they face gender workplace bias. They share how these microagressions feel like salt in a wound right now.

This is why I am even more in awe of their professionalism, their commitment to help mankind, and their leadership than I normally am. The women physicians in my community are not only continuing to show up and work tirelessly to care for people each day; they are doing it despite oftentimes being undervalued and mistreated.

What has amazed me the most – is how these women physicians, in the middle of what is possibly the hardest time of their medical career – are showing up for one another. They are sharing resources and data. They are reaching out to women in our group who they see struggling in hard-hit areas such as Seattle and New York and Detroit. Some have created hotlines managed by psychiatrist colleagues for all physicians on the front lines. They are sending flowers and cards to our physician colleagues who are sick with the coronavirus. They are posting words of encouragement and hope and funny stories to keep us all moving forward. They are sharing life hacks and swapping ideas for “how to conduct a consult over Zoom and keep your kids occupied” with one another.

They are the best of medicine. The amount of grit and grace they possess is unbelievable, and it is inspiring to watch.

I am sharing this because I wanted you to know how amazing the women physicians are that are caring for you, but also to show you how incredibly human they are. Maybe this will inspire you to send a note of thanks or encouragement to a physician.

And most importantly, have hope.

We are in good hands.

Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.

Image credit: Sasha Shillcutt

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