COVID-19 is a crucial part of our individual medical career stories

In early 2020 the COVID-19 virus descended upon all of us in the U.S. No longer something we would anxiously read about in the news from outside our shores, this new public health dilemma had touched down close to home.  Before long, the WHO would proclaim it to be a worldwide global viral pandemic, emphasizing the magnitude of the problem and the urgent need for all nations to work in concert to contain and deal with it.

It’s been quite an unanticipated year since the declaration of this devastating pandemic.  Still, we feel truly blessed to have witnessed great success in understanding the virus and developing treatment guidelines, and developing several active vaccines. We have come a long way since the worldwide economic and travel shutdowns of March 2020, but by the looks of things, we may still ways to go before we might again have the relative normalcy we had in the pre-COVID-19 world.

One early summer day in 2013, I chanced upon my paternal grandpa’s autobiography. His words below from the grave gave me some insight into the devastation of Spanish influenza. No more than 4 years old at the time, this man who would become my grandfather, was not spared the effects of this pandemic, not even in his native South Eastern Nigeria, far away from the initial origins of the virus in North America.

I am an older millennial, one of those who attained adulthood around the turn of the millennium.  My generation has seen quite a few groundbreaking and notable world events:

  • We all remember the year 2000 and the Y2K bug. That was a time when we thought the whole world would grind to a halt because the computers would not know what to do when the clock struck 12 midnight on December 31, 1999.
  • My generation saw the world go practically paperless with computers in school and banking technology. We witnessed the birth of Google, the evolution of the smartphone, and suddenly we had the world at our fingertips.
  • In medicine, my generation of trainee physicians saw the establishment of the electronic medical record. As an intern, I stopped writing notes and orders on paper.  With several clicks of a mouse, I entered orders, and eventually, the patient record was totally moved to the electronic system.  Paper folders and charts got much smaller, relegated to a largely ignored corner on inpatient nursing stations.
  • We witnessed other pandemics – SARS, Ebola, etc.  We saw our medical systems prepare in case of a massive outbreak of these. We can say now that humanity somehow got these pandemics under control, enormous loss of life and suffering notwithstanding.

Someday, we will also be remembered as one of several generations that lived through the COVID-19 global pandemic.  Future generations will be in awe when they think of how we endured and the challenges and stresses we had to live through, yet somehow rising above it.

More than any other generation, it is imperative that we start documenting and saving our memories of this era.

Physicians in this era, will be remembered as the generation that worked through the greatest viral pandemic that followed Spanish influenza, at a time when advances in technology and communications had made the world much smaller.  During our time, the friendly handshake between patient and physician disappeared, we learned to adjust to a new norm of daily mask-wearing with maskne introduced as a new term, telehealth exploded overnight, and still, we kept trucking on and hoping for better days even as our young children at home had to rapidly adjust to online learning.

There is nothing as good as firsthand personal stories, in describing detailed effects, consequences, and other ramifications of significant world events.  Not surprisingly, the CDC maintains an archived Pandemic Influenza storybook, a very enlightening compilation of firsthand accounts that was “first released in 2008 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic.”  Several other similar archives are maintained by the Library of Congress and several other State online archives.

We all form part of the story of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our various experiences of challenges, devastation, success, resilience, and breakthroughs will one day be looked upon by future generations. We, who are living through the COVID-19 pandemic, will one day have a chance to contribute to pandemic archives.

We owe it to future generations to prioritize writing and saving our stories.  Biographies, autobiographies, and other personal accounts should not only fall within reach of celebrities, or scholars, or even writers. All stories matter, and regardless of our background, each one of us has a notable account that will be most informative for those who will come after us.

Uchenna O. Njiaju is a hematologist-oncologist and can be reached on Twitter @drucheoncology and at DrUcheOncology, a site dedicated to sharing useful information on cancer and blood disorders, as well as encouraging non-medical people to learn to be effective self-advocates in health matters. She is the author of Self Navigate For Health: How everyone can learn to take charge, and get the most out of their health journey and How To Write Your Family Biography: Great Questions To Use in Gathering Family History.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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