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 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.”