Views from a pandemic
College faculty, staff and students share the struggles, surprises and silver linings in an unforgettable year
By Jill Pease
There is no easy way to articulate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives. For many of us, it has been the toughest year-plus in memory with profound effects on careers, relationships, health and family. While we may have discovered some surprising bright spots or personal growth, “most of us are experiencing a sense of exhaustion and frustration,” said Mark Lumley, Ph.D., a 1990 graduate of the PHHP doctoral program in clinical psychology and a distinguished professor in the department of psychology at Wayne State University, where he also directs the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology.
Lumley, whose research explores emotions, stress and their effects on physical health, notes that many months of hypervigilance about dangers in our environment (the virus, the person coughing near you in the store), combined with excessive focus on our bodies (are these symptoms COVID or allergies?) are contributing to increased levels of anxiety, fear and depression.
“This is a type of collective trauma,” Lumley said. “This is highly disruptive for our society and our world, and it’s going to leave lasting effects, some of which will be growth-based, and some of which will be loss-based. We can grow by realizing that we’re able to do some things that we didn’t think we could do. I hope we have some exploration of what we’ve learned and the challenges we’ve overcome, leading to post-traumatic growth rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Lumley has developed a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-recognized therapy for chronic pain called Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy. Borrowing from this therapy, he suggests talking or writing about our thoughts and feelings — especially those that are uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking — as we attempt to process the emotions and experiences associated with the pandemic.
“Those people who are prone to avoid or inhibit their hurt, loss or anger, I would encourage expressing that in some healthy ways,” Lumley said. “Those who are prone to over-emphasize the fears, losses and damage are encouraged to explore ways they’ve grown and benefited. Finally, there are some people who minimize the pandemic or say that it is irrelevant and has not affected them. In those cases, looking beyond yourself to see how it has affected others is valuable.
“As a general rule, as we’re coming out of a time of isolation, rediscovering the value of human connection and open communication would be ideal,” Lumley added. “We have to think about ways to do that.”
While there are many universalities in the COVID-19 experience, it has affected everyone differently. We asked several PHHP faculty, staff and students to share their pandemic stories.
Finding a new balance
In universities across the country, faculty are feeling the effects of pandemic workload. It is especially true among female faculty members with young children who experience a larger burden of caregiving responsibilities. A survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education of U.S. faculty found that nearly 75% of female respondents said their work-life balance had deteriorated in 2020, compared with less than two-thirds of male respondents.
For Shelley Heaton, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of clinical and health psychology and the director of UF Health Psychology Specialties, feelings of burnout came on gradually after an initial adrenaline rush in March 2020 when she led conversion of the practice’s 75-100 daily patient appointments into a telehealth platform – a feat completed in under a week. The rapid conversion to telehealth ensured the financial stability of the practice, but also created a variety of management challenges for her to navigate in the months that followed.
At the same time she has been managing work crises during nights and weekends, Heaton, a single mother, has been helping her school-aged children adapt to online learning and social isolation.
“Work was spilling into what would normally be my family time,” Heaton said. “At the same time, my parenting responsibilities spilled into my professional time when schools closed along with most childcare options.”
As the pandemic wore on, new clinical issues continued to arise that needed immediate attention. These included shifting COVID-19 clinical policies and coping with coverage when providers contracted or were exposed to the virus. The ongoing stress started to feel like post-traumatic stress disorder, Heaton said.
“You have these unexpected, very stressful situations that are outside of your control,” she said. “They are unpredictable, come out of nowhere and in the case of my job and home life they just kept coming.”
One of the personal consequences for Heaton has been the need to postpone professional development activities, including finishing board certification, a time-consuming process that she would normally tackle on weekends or evenings. Those hours are now spent handling work issues or helping kids with schoolwork.
“The ongoing stress and increased demands have compromised my multi-tasking skills and energy level,” Heaton said. “So although I have important professional goals that impact my salary and make me eligible for promotion, I just haven’t had the bandwidth to do that alongside all the other demands.”
Heaton recently took a short camping trip with her sons, the first vacation days she has taken in more than a year. She’s also implemented some other small changes into her work life, including ending Zoom meetings five minutes before the hour to allow mental transition time, working from different spaces to break up the Zoom monotony and finding opportunities to interact in-person with other people who have been fully vaccinated. These steps all make a noticeable difference, but full recovery from the year will come long after post-pandemic “normalcy” happens, Heaton said.
“Many of us are working at a net negative right now,” she said. “This calls on leadership to think flexibly about how to best support employees. For those of us who have accumulated this deficit it’s going to take a while to dig out, emotionally and productivity-wise. You can’t just turn it around overnight.”
Tara Segalewitz, a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders program, had just started her dream clinical placement in March 2020 at UF Health Shands Hospital. An aspiring medical speech pathologist, she was excited to be in an acute care setting with medically-complex cases. But it wasn’t long before COVID-19 forced the end of the placement, a shift to online classes and a move back to her family’s home in Ft. Lauderdale. Optimistically, she packed her suitcase with contents that would see her through two weeks.
“That transition with my clinical placement was really where the stress and the feeling of the unknown set in in terms of academics,” said Segalewitz, who worried she would not be able to accumulate the 400 patient contact hours necessary to keep her on track for a spring 2021 graduation.
“Will I be able to get the experiences and the exposure I need to be a competent and knowledgeable clinician when I graduate?” she wondered.
Thankfully, faculty in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, and one in particular, associate professor Emily Plowman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, came through in a big way to make sure students received the experiences they needed.
Plowman developed an online clinical case series featuring experts from across the state who covered a broad array of disorders. When clinical placements were again suspended in summer 2020, Plowman developed an online practicum in swallowing assessments she offered to several students, including Segalewitz. This led to Segalewitz participating in Plowman’s research on videofluoroscopic swallowing assessments for patients with ALS. Segalewitz is now a proud co-author on seven research publications and first author on a publication presented this spring at the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation annual meeting.
“As horrific as COVID-19 is, I had these amazing experiences I may not have had otherwise,” Segalewitz said. “Who knows if I would have gotten involved in research? I’d like to think that I would have because now I love it so much, but I don’t know.”
When students could again be placed in clinical settings, Segalewitz was able to complete that dream placement at UF Health and she finished out her studies with an externship at the Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Florida.
“It was a different path, but it was still a great one and I think I’m going to be just as successful, if not more successful, in my future endeavors,” she said.
An outbreak like no other
As an infectious disease researcher, Ira Longini, Ph.D., has traveled all over the world during public health crises, including dengue outbreaks in Mexico, the Ebola epidemic in Guinea and a cholera outbreak in Bangladesh, where he contracted the disease. But none have compared to the scale of COVID-19.
“I’ve worked more intensively on COVID-19 than anything else I’ve ever worked on before,” said Longini, a professor of biostatistics. “For previous infectious disease outbreaks threats that I have worked on in the past I always went there. I never experienced being threatened directly where I live and having all my family, friends and colleagues being threatened as well as everyone else. That has made a huge difference.”
In a typical year, Longini spends half his time at World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva working on emerging infectious diseases. In February 2020, he attended a large WHO meeting on a new virus that had originated in China.
“After two days of this big international meeting, the realization hit me very hard that this virus is going to spread all over the planet and was virtually unstoppable,” he said.
Later that month, Longini headed back to the U.S. for a planned trip to Gainesville. Because of travel restrictions he hasn’t been back since. That has meant countless Zoom meetings with WHO colleagues who are in a time zone several hours ahead of Florida; 4 a.m. ET meetings are not uncommon, Longini said.
“I love my work and I find it infinitely interesting and satisfying so I think that’s how I deal with the stress,” he said. “I realize that it’s something that has to be done and hopefully it’s helping. I’ve pretty much spent my entire career preparing for something like this.”
When asked how he might look back at the COVID-19 pandemic in several years, Longini likened the experience to something out of a novel, such as Michael Crichton’s 1969 book, The Andromeda Strain, which inspired him to pursue a career in infectious disease research.
“We at first just kind of watched in amazement and horror as something as small as a virus could emerge and be so perfectly honed in all its characteristics to spread everywhere on the planet and cause all this death, destruction, illness and disruption. In a sense, it is the stuff of science fiction, yet it happened.”
Looking for a silver lining
When the pandemic started affecting Florida in March 2020, Regan Wagner, who graduated this spring with a Master of Public Health degree in the epidemiology concentration, had plenty of worries. She was concerned about being successful in her coursework without the in-person study sessions she shared with her classmates. And she worried how she would pay her rent and other bills after she was furloughed from Outback Steakhouse, where she worked as a server. But as a public health student, she knew she needed to look for opportunities.
“I was trying to figure out how I could take this pandemic and turn it into something that could benefit me in the future,” Wagner said. “As an epidemiology student I needed to turn this into a silver lining.”
She found that opportunity as a disease investigator with UF Health Screen, Test & Protect, a program designed to protect the campus community through COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, surveillance and vaccination clinics.
Wagner has worked 30 to 40 hours a week, on top of being a full-time student. In addition to identifying transmission patterns and contacting and advising people who have been infected with COVID-19 and their close contacts, team members are assigned to groups that serve different campus populations. Wagner works in the occupational health group, helping UF Health Shands Hospital employees navigate special issues that arise as they return to work.
With the support of her supervisors Jerne Shapiro, M.P.H., lead epidemiologist, and Cindy Prins, Ph.D., M.P.H., infection preventionist, Wagner’s experience with Screen, Test & Protect has not only given her new confidence in her abilities, it’s helped her identify an interest in a career in hospital infection prevention. Following graduation, she accepted a position as an infection preventionist at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.
“When I first started this job the imposter syndrome was real. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here,” she said. “I’ve learned I’m just as qualified as the people around me to do this job and to have more confidence in myself, and that’s really what this job has proven to me. This job has helped boost my confidence and boost my resumé as well.”
Clinical placement scramble
When COVID-19 upended spring and summer 2020 clinical placements for Doctor of Physical Therapy students, Natacha Miller, the academic assistant for clinical education in the department of physical therapy, set a personal objective to achieve the department’s goal of making sure all the students for the affected class would be able to graduate on time.
Miller and her team had what seemed to be an impossible task: find new clinical placements for 140 first- and second-year students that would start in fall 2020 and spring 2021. She approaches her role with clinical facilities as a partnership and it’s important to her that she understands their needs. At that time, many physical therapy practices were struggling. Therapists were furloughed, facilities lacked the personnel to supervise students and there wasn’t enough PPE to go around. In addition, Miller needed to learn and understand changing COVID-19 protocols for both the UF academic health center and the many placement sites.
To help manage all the details, Miller drew upon her 15 years of customer service experience, M.B.A. degree training and affinity for Excel.
“The tracking for this position is just surreal,” she said. “I love the whole data management aspect of my job. I don’t get to use the analytical parts of Excel a lot here, but I do love any time I can pull those tricks out of my sleeve.”
At the same time Miller was managing confirmations, cancellations and tracking, she was dealing with the stress of working from home for the first time.
“There is that internal thought process where you think ‘I’m here and I’m accountable, but what is my manager thinking? I want to be sure that she knows that I’m here and I’m here for her,’” said Miller, who eventually learned it was ok to get up from her computer from time to time.
After many, many phone calls, emails and logistical management, Miller is proud to say her team secured the necessary placements so that all the D.P.T. students will be able complete the full four clinical rotations built into the program, a feat that many other D.P.T. programs were not able to achieve. And she had a few realizations along the way.
“I learned that I need to be kinder to myself,” Miller said. “I have really high expectations of everything that I do. It’s ok not to have a clean kitchen. It’s ok to sit down for a couple of minutes and take a mental break. I didn’t realize how hard I was on myself until this whole thing happened. I learned how to be more understanding and communicate better.”
Like most doctoral students, Sean Turner cannot easily afford much disruption to his plan of study. As a third-year Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, Turner is simultaneously completing coursework, conducting research in his concentration area of neuropsychology and providing mental health services to patients under faculty supervision.
Last July, Turner was on his first neuropsychological rotation and adjusting to remote work when he contracted COVID-19. And then, three months later, he tested positive again.
During his first bout, Turner battled fatigue (he fell asleep at his desk several times) and other symptoms, but because he was already working from home, the impact on others wasn’t as great. The day before he fell ill again in October, however, Turner had been onsite at his practicum and had stopped by the UF Health Psychology Specialties practice, exposing several people. Fortunately, no one he had been in contact with developed the virus.
The second experience with COVID-19 brought a different set of symptoms along with the disappointment of being back at home after finally being able to interact with others in person.
“The second time with COVID-19 was a bigger blow emotionally because I had been back in the world, and now I’m back in my apartment,” Turner said.
Still, Turner realizes he is fortunate to have recovered from both rounds of COVID-19 and to have had the support and understanding of faculty.
“I was very fortunate to be in this situation where I was,” Turner said. “I had access to testing, and later, a vaccine, and I was in a supportive environment that facilitated me staying home and quarantining when I needed to. I didn’t lose income, which was the fate of many people. Overall, the juxtaposition of that luck with the anxiety and stress caused by this novel, scary virus, that’s how it’s reflected in my mind.”
Protecting a loved one
Farah Arosemena-Murfee had just returned from New York City to celebrate her grandmother’s 103rd birthday in early March 2020 when she received a call that one of the celebration hosts had tested positive for COVID-19.
The situation in her grandmother’s building, an independent senior living building, rapidly worsened as more residents tested positive for the virus when the pandemic swept through the city in early spring. The home aides who care for Arosemena-Murfee’s grandmother feared exposing her to the virus and stopped coming in to work, and senior care facilities in the area were not accepting new residents. Arosemena-Murfee, her husband and two children, ages 11 and 9, made the decision to bring her grandmother to Gainesville to live with the family.
“We jumped in and said this is the right thing bringing her to Florida,” Arosemena-Murfee said. “It all happened so fast. We looked into other options, but it turns out there weren’t any other options.”
By April, with her grandmother at her side at the kitchen table, Arosemena-Murfee was juggling her UF role as the program manager and director of pilot and feasibility studies for the Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, along with caring for her grandmother and helping her children manage the transition to online learning. Also on her plate: spending hours on the phone and on hold with her grandmother’s physicians, managing her grandmother’s finances and learning to care for someone with dementia.
Despite the struggles, there were many bright moments, Arosemena-Murfee said. These included taking her grandmother to parks; watching Wheel of Fortune together while holding hands on the couch; and being able to experience her grandmother’s lucid moments.
“There were moments every day where she was more lucid than not so I got to capture them,” Arosemena-Murfee said. “I actually got to be with her when she remembered me.”
Later in the summer when the situation in New York City had improved and Arosemena-Murfee was able to find full-time caregivers, she returned her grandmother to her apartment, fulfilling her grandmother’s wish to age in place in the city she had made her home since emigrating from Panama in her 30s. Arosemena-Murfee continues to manage her care from a distance and can now return to New York more frequently to relieve the home aides. Caring for her grandmother over the past year has been a small way for Arosemena-Murfee to do something for the glamorous woman who helped her as a child to build her identity as a confident and proud Latina.
“In the end, I think I remember the best parts, that my grandmother had time with my family, that she traveled to Florida and got to be in a really safe environment,” Arosemena-Murfee said. “In New York she wouldn’t have been able to go outside. For those three months she could be outside, watching the kids jump on the trampoline. And memories would come back to her. She got to be social instead of just waving to her family through a window. I’m proud of that.”