I’ve had to adjust to many things since coming to live and work in New York City in 2017. Having grown up in the suburbs of South Jersey and done my fellowship in tiny Charlottesville, Virginia, stepping into my first director-level position in the Bronx was a big – and rewarding – challenge. But 2020 has been something else altogether.
Like many of my colleagues, my experience of the pandemic so far has been a wild one. I can still remember the heady days of January, watching reports of a novel disease in China and believing that it would be a minor annoyance, perhaps a flash in the pan like SARS. In February, I went to Spain and remember catching a news report of towns in Italy under quarantine. By then, I should have known better – but still I thought this would be short-lived. Remembering that time is like looking back and cringing at a terrible opinion from my high-school self, but from only six months ago. The longest six months I’ve lived through, perhaps, but six months nonetheless.
Back in the US, things changed rapidly. As soon as cases started rising in New York, things became significantly more real. Lockdowns started and we had to deal with the reality of finding PPE. Supplies were tight even on patient care wards – so how were we going to supply our technologists who were worried for themselves and their families? Not to mention that staffing, frequently below 100 percent during normal times, would quickly decrease to skeleton crews if we had a significant outbreak. Luckily, the director of hematology, Morayma Reyes Gil, secured a supply of masks for technologists that kept us stocked until PPE supply chains were worked out.
Supplies were tight even on patient care wards – so how were we going to supply our technologists who were worried for themselves and their families?
We were lucky; our technologists were mostly spared any infection. But a number of lab directors came down with COVID before mask-wearing was, or could be, standard practice. I was drafted to assist with our hastily assembled COVID-19 accessioning department (dubbed the “COVID Command Center”) after the previous head came down with the disease. Shortly after she fell sick, another director with whom I had close contact contracted the virus as well. The head of the command center and I had frequent talks about our certainty that we were infected and would notice symptoms soon. At least one member of our command center team came down with COVID-19; her partner was hospitalized with it. Then, in April, we heard that a member of our staff had passed away from COVID-19. Even as we worked to fight the disease, it had seemed distant – but that moment made everything snap into focus.
Now, months on, with the New York State infection rate hovering at 1 percent, things seem to have stabilized. Lab operations are mostly back to normal now (albeit a “new normal”). I am back to my usual job in the hematology lab, though I am still working on a SARS-CoV-2 serology project. But everything, from the masks to the still-depressed, eerily subdued New York City traffic, reminds me that things are not really back to normal. We are all going to carry this year with us for a long time.
Originally published in The Pathologist as part of an ongoing series from pathology professionals from all over the world recounting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their personal and professional lives. Reproduced with permission.