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Our fearless core crew of six pediatric resident alumni from Emory University gathered in Washington, D.C., for the AAP NCE. It was a long-awaited reunion after our booked Philadelphia convention was scrapped and converted to a virtual experience. Some of us shared that conference remotely in Hilton Head, though our spirits were low as we trudged through the fourth wave of the pandemic. But we cried and laughed, walked along the beach, and sang along to Keith Urban’s home studio concert. The venue and the recent election of one of our core members to VP of the Alabama AAP chapter ignited our drive to reaffiliate once again at NCE.

We are an educated female demographic, although our differences reflect the beauty of America: an African American single mother who raised a medical malpractice lawyer, a gay leader practicing in an underserved area, three Christians, and one Jewish woman. One of our six is the lead hospitalist at our training institution’s children’s hospital, while the rest of us are primary care providers. Our shared history of learning and training together unites us to this day, so much so that we wore Emory Y2K Class shirts throughout the conference! Our combined careers to date have produced 138 years of pediatric care from the Northeast to the Deep South.

The AAP threw down an amazing and varied intellectual landscape at the convention center, topics ranging from nicotine and tobacco prevention to skin of color to mental health and, of course, all the bread and butter updates of pediatric medicine. One could suture or write poetry, depending on the workshop! We whispered and giggled during lectures, just like in the old days, gathered for meals, and reconnected with our broader Emory community and our majority-member GA AAP chapter. Welcoming and kindness abounded in our pediatric circles. Our mutual affiliations with the national AAP, our local chapters, and our training institution continue to foster strong bonds, connected communities, and continued learning. We recognized and were grateful for the joy and ease that bubbled up after the desert of the pandemic.

There was dancing in the ballroom, massages in the wellness corner, and even a quiet room. We partook in almost all that was offered and yet even had time to step away to explore Washington. A walk down the street serendipitously led us to Ford’s Theatre. Then, upon venturing onto the National Mall, we were reminded of the ongoing conflicts in our larger world. Protests, marches, raised flags, and shouts entered our visual and auditory space. We were reminded that we are not immune to these struggles, even as we intend the greater good of children at a national conference. This brief experience was a foreshadowing of what was to come at dinner that evening.

One of our resourceful crew members arranged a large group Saturday night dinner at a restaurant less than a half mile walk from our hotel. The meal was exquisite, and the fellowship was gratifying. We were taking pictures of our sumptuous food and sharing personal updates on family, career and travel. The mood was light until it wasn’t. A shooting brought the restaurant staff running and shouting our way. We dropped under the tables, blanketed by staff on one edge of our table. Some astute docs drew chairs in to protect us.

Some of us didn’t know the shooting was outside and a driveby, details that would slowly emerge. We clung to one another; some shed tears, and some called 911. The heart rate acceleration, tunnel vision, and auditory exclusion were instantly observable. The not-knowing and what-ifs percolated through our communal mind, sometimes erupting onto our lips. We made eye contact and reassured the doubtful, not one of us knowing the outcome. After a surreal and indeterminate amount of time, we rose from under the table. Yellow police tape marked off the front entrance, soaked wooden floors under our feet due to spilled water, and bewildered faces flooded our consciousness. Slowly, we reconnected with reality and voiced gratitude for our safety. Time, patience, and Uber drivers to the side door of the restaurant would transport us to what we perceived as more secure surroundings.

This stressful occurrence shook some of our psyches. Others stated that the event was not traumatic because we didn’t hear the gunshot. Trauma can be communal, but it is largely individual. We did agree that none of us is exempt from the gun violence on our streets. Unfortunately, many of our patients have survived far worse and even life-altering experiences.

The mental transition back to the conference looked different for all of us. Almost all of us slept; some went to church, others rested. This distraction could have defined our time away from our families and offices, but it didn’t. Our affiliation with one another and our supporting institutions helped us walk through the fear and uncertainty. As Dr. Fauci remarked to his devoted AAP audience during his plenary award session, “I always knew you had my back, but I always had yours as well.” We went on to listen, learn, and laugh again, ever more thankful for our continued chance to live.

Dr. Kelly has no conflicts of interest to report.

Image by GoodStudio / Shutterstock

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