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Archives for April 13, 2020

Heroes of COVID-19: A Health Care Worker

Across the globe, people are coping with the impact of COVID-19 in their own ways. Most apparent, however, is the universal display of gratitude for those working tirelessly to keep the world going. Welcome to the Heroes of COVID-19 series where we will learn from essential workers about what life is like on the frontlines of this pandemic. First up, learn from Dr. Marylou Cullinan, a health care worker in Colorado, who has witnessed the effects of this virus and the valor of her colleagues first hand.

Q&A with Dr. Cullinan, a Frontline Health Care Worker

Pre-COVID-19, what did your job as an infectious disease doctor look like?

Day to day, prior to this, I would see infections everywhere from brain infections to big toe infections. I don’t have a cancer or transplant unit so I didn’t see too many of those patients, but pretty much everything in between. Some were surgical infections, and my wound care clinic also saw infections, but mostly wounds.

Since this pandemic has started, how has your daily role changed?

The biggest personal change is now wearing protective equipment all day long at the hospital. That has advanced from none, unless you were going into a room with a patient that might or might not have the infection, to now wearing masks and hair protection all the time. Then to wearing extra face protection and extra gloves and extra gowns going in to see patients.

The biggest change really is now seeing half of a hospital full of patients with lung infections on ventilators and being short of breath and miserable. That’s just not our norm. We would maybe have four or five people with bad pneumonias in the hospital during the wintertime, usually influenza or something related to that, and to have 20 or more on ventilators, is such a different thing.

People are putting their lives on the line. Literally. Doctors are dying. Particularly those on the frontline: emergency room, ICU staff, critical care, and pulmonary doctors are all at risk and they go to work every day knowing that. I don’t think there’s anything more selfless.

Do you think there is a mental health piece that people aren’t really talking about?

Oh, definitely. But, we are talking about it, we talk about it all the time. The medical stuff we all know how to deal with, but it’s hard because more people are dying than we’ve ever had to deal with before.

The other thing that’s really starting to become sad and hard for all of us is that hospitals, and all of the health care facilities, can’t allow visitors anymore. So patients are alone, and the families don’t understand what’s going on. You can talk to them on the phone, but nobody really understands without physically being there.

It’s very hard for these families to deal with what’s happening to their loved ones, and I can’t imagine being a patient and facing potential death without having your support system at your side.

A lot of nurses are making herculean efforts to connect people on their cell phones and to bring in iPads to try and FaceTime people, but you know it’s just not the same. That’s starting to really wear on all of us emotionally.

Not being able to have family meetings and really help them understand what’s going on, and the poor patients having to be alone, is all just tragic. I think we’re all suffering some depression as a consequence of that.

As a health care worker, what is one thing you wish the public understood about this situation?

People really still don’t understand how real this is.

You see a lot of people who should know better and aren’t explaining this well enough, or maybe people just aren’t hearing it. I just wish people would understand that this is a real thing, and we’re not going to be able to wake up tomorrow and go back to “normal”.

I think people don’t totally understand the point of social distancing. People hear the ‘flattening the curve’ concept, but they don’t really understand that the idea is not that you’re going to change the area under the curve. You’re just spreading it out over a broader timeframe so that there are resources even for the people who end up getting sick later in the curve. People are still going to get sick. It’s just that you don’t want them to all get sick at the same time.

What is one positive thing you’ve seen come out of this so far?

We’re learning more, right? I mean, from the scientific perspective the acceleration of knowledge is phenomenal. The studies that would usually take months to set up are being set up in days, so there’s definitely a big pressure on the research communities to deal with this. They’ve overcome a lot of factors that normally would have blocked those things from happening.

Most of that’s a good thing. You have to be a little bit careful because sometimes that can be a bad thing if you’re not being as careful about selecting patients or doing controlled studies. You may not get the data that you’re looking for.

Has this kind of scientific acceleration of knowledge happened before?

The only other time that we’ve seen this, in my experience, is early in the AIDS epidemic where people just said, “We’ve got to do something.” The amount of knowledge that has come out of that research has been phenomenal and wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

This is the same thing. It never happens as fast as you want it to, but we’ll have a much greater knowledge of the immunology that goes along with viruses, particularly coronaviruses, and vaccine development doesn’t have to take as long.

These are positives that don’t impact us on a daily basis so it’s a little hard for non-medical people to understand. Everyone wants a vaccine tomorrow, and that isn’t going to happen. Yet, the fact that we can have a vaccine in a year is pretty phenomenal when normally it takes a vaccine five years or more to get approved.

What do you hope people will learn from this pandemic?

People are certainly a little bit more aware of their own responsibility for their health.

Now, you know, people can’t just go see their doctor, so people are taking better care of themselves.

It’s kind of interesting that the hospitals are overrun with people that are affected by coronavirus, but where are the people that used to have a heart attack, or that used to have their diabetes out of control? Is that because they’re home, and nobody is watching out for them, and they’re all going to get into trouble in the next few weeks? Maybe. I think more likely it’s that people are saying, “Wow, I have these chronic diseases that put me at higher risk of dying from coronavirus, I better take better care of myself.”

I hope that’s the case anyway. People are learning more than anyone probably wants to know about viruses, but it’s making them think differently about their own health.

Stay Tuned

Across the globe, people are coping with the impact of COVID-19 in their own ways. Most apparent, however, is the universal display of gratitude for those working tirelessly to keep the world going. Welcome to the Heroes of COVID-19 series where we will learn from essential workers about what life is like on the frontlines of this pandemic. First up, learn from Dr. Marylou Cullinan, a health care worker in Colorado, who has witnessed the effects of this virus and the valor of her colleagues first hand.

Q&A with Dr. Cullinan, a Frontline Health Care Worker
Pre-COVID-19, what did your job as an infectious disease doctor look like?
Day to day, prior to this, I would see infections everywhere from brain infections to big toe infections. I don’t have a cancer or transplant unit so I didn’t see too many of those patients, but pretty much everything in between. Some were surgical infections, and my wound care clinic also saw infections, but mostly wounds.

Since this pandemic has started, how has your daily role changed?
The biggest personal change is now wearing protective equipment all day long at the hospital. That has advanced from none, unless you were going into a room with a patient that might or might not have the infection, to now wearing masks and hair protection all the time. Then to wearing extra face protection and extra gloves and extra gowns going in to see patients.

The biggest change really is now seeing half of a hospital full of patients with lung infections on ventilators and being short of breath and miserable. That’s just not our norm. We would maybe have four or five people with bad pneumonias in the hospital during the wintertime, usually influenza or something related to that, and to have 20 or more on ventilators, is such a different thing.

People are putting their lives on the line. Literally. Doctors are dying. Particularly those on the frontline: emergency room, ICU staff, critical care, and pulmonary doctors are all at risk and they go to work every day knowing that. I don’t think there’s anything more selfless.

Do you think there is a mental health piece that people aren’t really talking about?
Oh, definitely. But, we are talking about it, we talk about it all the time. The medical stuff we all know how to deal with, but it’s hard because more people are dying than we’ve ever had to deal with before.

The other thing that’s really starting to become sad and hard for all of us is that hospitals, and all of the health care facilities, can’t allow visitors anymore. So patients are alone, and the families don’t understand what’s going on. You can talk to them on the phone, but nobody really understands without physically being there.

It’s very hard for these families to deal with what’s happening to their loved ones, and I can’t imagine being a patient and facing potential death without having your support system at your side.

A lot of nurses are making herculean efforts to connect people on their cell phones and to bring in iPads to try and FaceTime people, but you know it’s just not the same. That’s starting to really wear on all of us emotionally.

Not being able to have family meetings and really help them understand what’s going on, and the poor patients having to be alone, is all just tragic. I think we’re all suffering some depression as a consequence of that.

As a health care worker, what is one thing you wish the public understood about this situation?
People really still don’t understand how real this is.

You see a lot of people who should know better and aren’t explaining this well enough, or maybe people just aren’t hearing it. I just wish people would understand that this is a real thing, and we’re not going to be able to wake up tomorrow and go back to “normal”.

I think people don’t totally understand the point of social distancing. People hear the ‘flattening the curve’ concept, but they don’t really understand that the idea is not that you’re going to change the area under the curve. You’re just spreading it out over a broader timeframe so that there are resources even for the people who end up getting sick later in the curve. People are still going to get sick. It’s just that you don’t want them to all get sick at the same time.

What is one positive thing you’ve seen come out of this so far?
We’re learning more, right? I mean, from the scientific perspective the acceleration of knowledge is phenomenal. The studies that would usually take months to set up are being set up in days, so there’s definitely a big pressure on the research communities to deal with this. They’ve overcome a lot of factors that normally would have blocked those things from happening.

Most of that’s a good thing. You have to be a little bit careful because sometimes that can be a bad thing if you’re not being as careful about selecting patients or doing controlled studies. You may not get the data that you’re looking for.

Has this kind of scientific acceleration of knowledge happened before?
The only other time that we’ve seen this, in my experience, is early in the AIDS epidemic where people just said, “We’ve got to do something.” The amount of knowledge that has come out of that research has been phenomenal and wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

This is the same thing. It never happens as fast as you want it to, but we’ll have a much greater knowledge of the immunology that goes along with viruses, particularly coronaviruses, and vaccine development doesn’t have to take as long.

These are positives that don’t impact us on a daily basis so it’s a little hard for non-medical people to understand. Everyone wants a vaccine tomorrow, and that isn’t going to happen. Yet, the fact that we can have a vaccine in a year is pretty phenomenal when normally it takes a vaccine five years or more to get approved.

What do you hope people will learn from this pandemic?
People are certainly a little bit more aware of their own responsibility for their health.

Now, you know, people can’t just go see their doctor, so people are taking better care of themselves.

It’s kind of interesting that the hospitals are overrun with people that are affected by coronavirus, but where are the people that used to have a heart attack, or that used to have their diabetes out of control? Is that because they’re home, and nobody is watching out for them, and they’re all going to get into trouble in the next few weeks? Maybe. I think more likely it’s that people are saying, “Wow, I have these chronic diseases that put me at higher risk of dying from coronavirus, I better take better care of myself.”

I hope that’s the case anyway. People are learning more than anyone probably wants to know about viruses, but it’s making them think differently about their own health.

Stay Tuned
There are are plenty more essential workers to learn from and thank for their efforts. In the meantime, continue to educate yourself. Dr. Cullinan mentioned a quote she read, “This is the world without ONE vaccination, imagine a world with none.” Going forward, vaccines and understanding their importance is going to be more important than ever. Learn from Jennifer Reich on why they are beneficial to everyone, not just the person getting vaccinated.

“This will end,” said Dr. Cullinan. “This is not the end of the world. It will certainly end when we have a good vaccine, and I have every reason to believe that we will.”

Empathy Technology: Overcoming Division

In our current socially-distanced reality, technology (the double-edged sword of connection) is coming in handy. We might be isolated from our families and friends, but Zoom, House Party, FaceTime, and online games are helping us stay in constant communication. Yet, can technology help us overcome divisions in humanity? Our collective tendency to hate, isolate, and blame? Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar, artist and the founder of Pathos Labs, believes so. Discover the impact of empathy technology in Romain’s talk on how virtual reality can help us overcome our fear of those we do not know.

Coming Together Along Lines of Difference

We are living in an environment of intense stress and division. States are brutally bidding against each other for life-saving ventilators and PPE. Asian-American harassment in the U.S. has spiked after President Trump’s adoption of the term “the Chinese virus” for COVID-19. Yet, this is also a time of people coming together. Cities unite at 7 p.m. to cheer in support of health care workers on the front lines. Across the globe, people are socially distancing through song and exercise on their balconies

COVID-19 is bringing to light what we already know. People will come together in times of strife, but others will remain divided. Across the world, physical and psychological barriers make it difficult for us to empathize with those that are different from us. These barriers also make it difficult to change our minds or alter our perspectives.

“In the grips of fear, anger, and hatred, coming together along lines of difference is rarely the option to which we’re drawn, and we choose to remain isolated from those different from us.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

In the U.S., we are politically, racially, and religiously isolated. Romain points out that 75 percent of white Americans do not have a non-white friend and only 25 percent of Americans have met a Muslim person. This makes it difficult to empathize when COVID-19 disproportionately impacts communities of color or when working-class Americans are feeling the brunt of economic impact from the virus. Romain knows our intolerance for others and our inability to empathize can become our demise. 

Intergroup Contact Theory

One effective tool in empathy building, Romain explains, is the Intergroup Contact Theory. This theory holds that experiencing one moment of intimate contact with someone you fear can drastically reduce your prejudice.

Shortly following the 2016 election and the Muslim Ban announcement, Romain, the son of an Iranian immigrant, wanted to test this theory out for himself. So, he packed his things and drove to the most conservative state in the country at the time, Oklahoma.

Fearful of the hate he would experience upon arrival, Romain was surprised by the “generosity, kindness, hospitality, [and] friendship” he received instead. He discovered the human behind the conservative voter, and Oklahomans met a “manifestation of Iranian, liberal, millennial, cosmopolitan, that deviated from the narratives that they believed.”

“Hatred will always get the attention, but it’s far from the full encompassing reality. It was only because we came together across lines of difference that we had the chance to look past the oversimplified narratives and see each other as human.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

Empathy Technology 

Romain’s experience in Oklahoma solidified his passion for building empathy between groups of difference. However, there was a clear barrier to making this possible for many people. Everyone cannot (and will not) hop into a car and travel to a place of difference. Most people stay put in their communities for the majority of their lives. That’s where technology comes in.

“I am a technologist, and while I see so many ways that technology is furthering isolation, I also find incredible hope in what technology is capable of doing in accelerating the speed and ease of coming together along lines of difference.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

So, Romain started a non-profit laboratory, Pathos Labs, focused on bringing people together. Using a special camera system, they recorded hundreds of stories from people spanning unique religious, cultural, and racial backgrounds. There was a gender non-conforming writer, a former meth addict, a Syrian refugee, a single teen mother, and more.

Using virtual reality, the lab transformed these videos into a realistic eye-gazing experience, where someone puts a VR headset on and feels like they are sitting in front of the person telling their story. 

“Research says that if you are placed in front of someone you may “otherize”, disagree with, or even hate—if you are met with kindness, happiness, vulnerability, you will start to feel the same way in return.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

In order to make this accessible to isolated communities, Pathos Labs embarked on a six-month road trip. Along the way, they shared this empathy technology with people who would otherwise never have the chance to connect with others so intimately. 

Using Empathy Technology Today

Technology has helped divide humanity, but it can also help connect us. Perhaps during this time of isolation, more people can engage with empathy technology to help us overcome division.

If you would like to engage in empathy technology right now, watch these two virtual reality Pathos Labs videos. These videos do not require a VR headset and can be watched from any device with access to YouTube.

Strangers: The Forgotten Women in America

Using VR technology, this short film tells the stories of three American mothers who all feel invisible in the U.S., including a rural farmer, an activist, and a refugee. As each mother speaks, the viewer can move around the video, simulating an in-person experience. The viewer can explore the homes and neighborhoods of these three women as they ponder the ways these strangers share similarities. 

My Beautiful Home

Aimed to discredit stereotypes about Kibera, a Kenyan village known as Africa’s largest slum, this VR video allows the viewer to see Kibera through the eyes of a 25-year-old woman. You can move the image around to see Kibera more clearly and genuinely, as Kibera residents reclaim their story, dignity, and self-worth.