This is part two of a three-part story series about  Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine alumni physicians, serving communities across the country. The current COVID-19 pandemic has changed how each of them do their jobs, in big and small ways.

Nine of the alumni, currently located on the West Coast to the East Coast and in between, offered their perspective of how the pandemic is affecting them professionally and personally. Part one explored stories from three alumni on the West Coast. Today, part two will share stories from the Midwest and Northeast. Part three will focus on the Greater Washington, D.C., metro area and Roanoke, Virginia.

Kevin McGurk: Chicago, Illinois

Kevin McGurk
Kevin McGurk, Class of 2017, is an emergency medicine resident and rising chief resident at Cook County Health in Chicago, Illinois.

Kevin McGurk, VTCSOM Class of 2017, is an emergency medicine resident and rising chief resident at Cook County Health in Chicago, Illinois, which was home to an early confirmed case on Jan. 24.

McGurk said significant community spread didn’t begin to affect the city until March. “The governor's disaster proclamation came in mid-March but the Emergency Department and hospital had already been making changes in anticipation of the pandemic. The approach to confronting the virus has evolved since then with changes to staffing, patient flow, department layout, and in-patient unit rearrangements,” McGurk said. “The health system, in conjunction with city and state government, has done an admirable job adapting as both the public health demands and our understanding of the disease has evolved.”

While adapting on the job, McGurk said the entire medical community is adapting to mitigate the pandemic. “I have also been impressed by the speed with which the medical community is sharing information about COVID as we learn it. As this is a novel virus with a unique and complex clinical course, Twitter has become an invaluable resource. Similarly, journals and educational blogs and websites have been racing to put out material that can help bedside clinicians in almost real-time. It speaks to a spirit of cooperation that highlights all of our common goals,” McGurk said.

He has also made adjustments personally. His parents live in the area and he has not seen them in months. But, he is adapting in ways many across the country are. “Like everyone else, teleconferencing/zoom has become a much larger part of personal and professional life.” McGurk added, “And I am cooking a lot more. Homemade falafel was a revelation. A sourdough starter is resting on the counter and, I hope, will justify the labor spent nurturing it.”

Vandana Kumar: New York, New York

Vandana Kumar in NYC
Vandana Kumar, Class of 2018, is a second-year psychiatry resident at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. In addition to the university hospital, she also works at the public hospital, Kings County Hospital.

New York City has been the nation’s hotspot, with the largest number of cases and deaths by far. Vandana Kumar, Class of 2018, is a second-year psychiatry resident at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. In addition to the university hospital, she also works at the public hospital, Kings County Hospital.

“The spread of the virus and vast changes to life in New York City happened so quickly,” Kumar said. "We had to isolate a febrile patient in the geriatric psychiatry clinic, where I was rotating in March at the beginning of the crisis. That incident was the turning point in my understanding of how serious the situation was.”

Kumar has had to adapt frequently, doing some telemedicine and also seeing patients in the psychiatric emergency room. She even had to switch gears for a week to internal medicine in a medical inpatient unit to help with the volume there. “I tend to have a difficult time dealing with death in the hospital due to having experienced it in my family, so having to face that again with some of our COVID patients, especially when it happens so abruptly, has been challenging.”

Kumar has also been unable to see her loved ones and boyfriend in person, because he lives with his elderly mother and visiting is not safe. She’s tried to stay connected in other ways. “I think we've all just become much more intentional about spending whatever time we can with each other, even if it is virtually. We've been doing virtual weekly game nights over Zoom with some of my cousins,” Kumar said. “More than anything else, this crisis shows that sometimes, we don't have all the answers and have to be creative.”

Jim Light: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jim Light and Lauren Maher
Jim Light with his partner and fellow physician, Lauren Maher, at a fall festival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, last year.

While not as many cases as New York, Pennsylvania has also been hit hard with a high number of positive coronavirus cases. Jim Light, Class of 2014, is an attending physician anesthesiologist and interventional pain specialist in a multispecialty private practice in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Light primarily works in an outpatient office-based setting and in an ambulatory surgical center associated with an area hospital. “I am seeing the vast majority of patients in follow-up through telemedicine,” Light said. “I had never used any form of telemedicine prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.” He continues to see a very limited number of new patients in clinic, and all outpatient elective procedures are stopped for now.

The pandemic has presented several unique challenges for Light. “The biggest challenge is, undoubtedly, that of facing an unknown. We are struggling, on the fly, to understand this novel disease – how it spreads, operates – and how best to take measures in the office and operating room to mitigate its effects.”

With so few patients in the office, but the hope to transition back to elective procedures soon, the office has worked to reschedule many weeks of planned procedures. “We are trying to keep afloat given the reduction in elective procedures and overall patients seeking care.”

Beyond those challenges, the pandemic has hit close to home. “We had several clinicians and staff test positive for COVID-19 and a staff member pass away from the virus. I would say the biggest challenge has been coping with the uncertainty and fear of it all.” Light added, “I suppose the biggest realization is that flexibility and adaptation to the unknown is the ‘new normal’ for health care workers everywhere.”

Light’s partner is a practicing obstetrics and gynecology physician, who has continued to work similarly in-clinic and on-call in the hospital. For both, they work and then spend time together at home, using virtual ways to keep in touch with friends and family. “We've at least found that the local farmers' markets keep in touch via social media and have cooperated well with social distancing, often better than the supermarkets. Our periodic 'dinner and a show' outings in the city have been replaced by, mostly successful, cooking experiments and puzzles. Our dining room table is, basically, a puzzle explosion."

> Part three of this story series will run in the Virginia Tech Daily on May 29.