Working through a societal turning point

I would like to dedicate this to my colleague Dr. Beth Potter ’89 and her husband, Robin Carre ’85, who tragically died at the end of March 2020.  Life is clearly too short, and these two lights were lost prematurely.

From ​Mary Stoffel, ’82, OB/Gyn in a woman-owned independent private practice (proudly successful and thriving in an area where large medical systems dominate!), Madison, WI

Tell us about your work, your duties and responsibilities, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
​I work doing women’s health and the full range of obstetrics and gynecology, both outpatient and in the hospital.  It is an honor and a privilege to take care of women, but also many times an added worry to have two patients in one during pregnancy. I am a senior founding partner of my medical practice, and just finished a two-year term as president of the medical staff at UnityPoint-Meriter Hospital, which is the hospital delivering the most babies (5000/year!) in Wisconsin. It’s also an honor to serve and represent my fellow clinicians in the rapidly changing world of healthcare systems.

To that end, it is imperative that the public listen to and abide by the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health officials, no matter the inconvenience.

Has the pandemic changed your role at work, and if so, how?  ​
The COVID-19 pandemic, fraught with little initial knowledge and no time to do quality research, kept everyone in healthcare moving at a very rapid pace as we have all tried to learn, do, care, and protect. It is especially nerve-wracking in obstetrics, as even the best research in medicine is rarely done well in pregnant women, and the degree of anxiety is high, the effects often delayed in discovery. In addition, as a medical practice and small business owner, there were lots of sudden pivots to make to provide safety to our patients, our staff and ourselves. We had to quickly begin a telehealth program and also revamp everything in the hospital environment. 

More broadly, how is the pandemic affecting what you see at work on a regular basis, e.g., employee workloads, the number of patients seeking help? 
​Oddly, our patients (and most patients) have seemed to take the cue that routine things can wait, which gave us the time and energy to deal with care that can’t wait! Our patients were also appreciative of our workflow design to keep them safe and still provide compassionate care. Our employees and staff were courageous, grateful, and calm despite their nervousness and some early COVID-19 exposures. Our employees, recognizing the financial impact of all of our practice changes, voluntarily worked out an appropriate coverage schedule that also was sensitive to the fact that our intention was to continue to pay all of them without furloughs or lay-offs. I am proud of how we have treated them. As much of a crisis as this has been, it has been extremely heart-warming to see the amount of cooperation, mutual care, and sense of community that we always knew was around us.

What is a fact and/or piece of advice you can offer to people to help them understand what is happening and how they should respond to maintain their health as well as they can?  
This “clever virus”–as one of my virologist acquaintances called it–can be devastating to those who suffer the worst consequences. The medical and scientific world is still learning to identify why some COVID-19 victims are completely asymptomatic carriers and why some traverse the entire course to severe respiratory distress and even death. Age, underlying conditions, and viral exposure load seem to be clear risk factors, but so much is not understood. To that end, it is imperative that the public listen to and abide by the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health officials, no matter the inconvenience.

By the same token, diligence, common sense and listening to reliable sources (as this information changes daily) will help keep most people safe and well, and it is important to extend this to protecting those who are at highest risk.

Is there any way in which your Knox education has helped you adapt to the current moment? 
I am grateful for my Knox education giving me the ability to think critically (in evaluating the reliability of various sources of information), the ability to think creatively (in helping to come up with solutions to problems never faced before), the humanity to compare the ethics of various courses of action when none seemed optimal, and the resilience and tenacity to work quickly and thoroughly (I’m lookin’ at you, Freshman Preceptorial!). I firmly believe that a liberal arts education provides these skills much more completely than a more proscribed STEM education, as valuable as that is.

What are you looking forward to once life returns to something more closely resembling “normal”? 
I am looking forward to being able to safely see my father (Don Stoffel, ’54), who has been isolated in his senior apartment complex for several weeks. I am looking forward to seeing my grown children more (including Eva Marley, ’13). Having just down-sized and moved to a downtown apartment, I will selfishly love having access to all the arts venues, restaurants, farmers markets, and other life joys that are currently closed down. Most importantly, I will enjoy not having to worry if every weird clinical situation could be an atypical presentation of COVID-19. And I will enjoy delivering a baby without full hot and uncomfortable PPE. It’s the little things …

This pandemic will be a turning point for society, and many things will likely never be the same. “What were you doing during the pandemic?” will be a common story for grandchildren to come, and how this is managed will affect us for many generations. I hope science and reason will take hold over societal and political motivators.

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