From my early days in medical school, I knew that I wanted to become a psychiatrist. My decision was met with mixed opinions from my family and colleagues, as stigma towards this specialty persists. But I’ve always longed to pursue a career in psychiatry and hoped to contribute to fighting the stigma and spreading awareness of mental health and illness. The exceptional approach psychiatry takes in exploring human behavior and the motivations that drive it is fascinating and deeply rewarding. It also provides a unique privilege to not only be part of the patient’s story, but also have a role in achieving a positive shift in their narrative.
I’m sitting in my residency library on a gloomy spring afternoon during my trauma surgery rotation. I stare out the window at the shedding cherry blossom trees, and I reflect on how the last ten months flew by. As I’m waiting for a trauma alert to be paged out, another chest tube, another bedside thoracotomy, I think back to where I was exactly one year ago today. I was packing up my bags in Ireland, prepared to move across the pond to a new country, ready for my first full-time clinical training experience and to start a new life. Little did I know how much I would learn in medicine, and in life.
Living the “American Dream” was a phrase I heard a lot while growing up because many of my relatives were settled in the USA. During medical school, I had made up my mind to pursue psychiatry as a preferred specialty. After making a thorough comparison of psychiatry training in Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the USA, I decided to aim for training in the United States.
I remember hearing on the news that in China there was an outbreak of a new respiratory virus. Shortly thereafter, this virus propagated all over the world. I made video calls to my family members back in Guatemala to discuss the importance of isolation and the use of masks. They were really scared because the virus was killing hundreds of people around the world and had just reached my home country. I was training in Chicago, Illinois at one of the biggest hospitals in the city. Cook County serves a large population of immigrants and non-insurance patients. It was a time of great uncertainty for many. The virus continued to spread and one day I received a phone call from my chief resident, indicating that I would be reassigned to the first medical COVID-19 response team. I agreed without thinking because I wanted to help these patients. After the conversation, I told the news to my wife and she started crying because she was worried about my safety. I decided not to tell my parents because this was relatively new, and they would have been very scared for my safety.
“Doc, which C is worse for me… cancer or coronavirus?” Many patients asked this question. The anxiety of a new cancer diagnosis, waiting to start treatment, and then suddenly news of a pandemic changed everything for all cancer patients. Bewildered, some patients would hesitate to come to the hospital while others would try to hide their viral symptoms to prevent interruption of treatment. COVID-19 has presented varying challenges to all health care professionals, and being a resident physician involved in caring for cancer patients has its own unique difficulties.