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Two Doctors, One Goal: Sharing Stories of Unsung COVID-19 Heroes

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

The pandemic has caused upheaval in the lives of many in medicine and beyond. Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals have been lauded as heroes in their response to COVID-19. As we rightly celebrate these professionals, there are other, less-visible heroes — from a hospital custodian to a champion fencer with dashed olympic dreams — doing what they can to persist in spite of COVID-19. Doximity had the opportunity to speak with Drs. Thea Swenson and Michelle Izmaylov, who set out to bring some of these inspirational stories into the spotlight with their blog, From Two Doctors

Doximity: Tell us about your blog and how you came to feature these stories. What are you hoping to accomplish through this project?

Dr. Michelle Izmaylov: We’re two women in medicine at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Nashville who connected over a shared interest in having a positive impact on the people around us. The COVID-19 situation was just getting out of control in February or March [of 2020]. We didn't yet know how bad this virus would be. We saw custodians who were going in to clean patient rooms and putting their lives on the line to keep patients safe. People were on their balconies applauding to celebrate nurses and other visible health care staff, but weren’t recognizing our custodians as much. Thea and I came together and raised over $8,000 in a week with the help of our generous community. We were able to get the custodians gift cards and other gifts as a way of celebrating them and showing our appreciation. We wanted to transition this to a more substantial project to recognize more people in medicine, in teaching, and in other fields. And that’s part of where the idea to find all these different stories came from. 

Dr. Thea Swenson: We’re both storytellers in a sense. I was a product design major and Michelle’s a writer, so we really like to understand people and how they behave. In medicine, the most important part of the exam is the history and physical. Being able to take a good history, being able to understand where people are coming from, affects their health care. It’s important for us to continue to grow that skill. We wanted to highlight other people who deserved recognition.

MI: We want to share a message of incredible hope that can come out of a place as dark as the pandemic, and how these situations challenge us. We want to reach a wider audience with the intention of connecting with people.

TS: You often don't realize things that people are going through. As physicians, we’re privileged to see patients during their most vulnerable times. Those moments don’t always get shared. The pandemic really brought out some of these stories. Telling other people’s stories is really powerful.

Dox: Your website states that you put together “relief packages” for your storytellers. What inspired you to create these relief packages, and can you share an example of one?

TS: When we had collected money for the Environmental Management Services staff, we wanted to figure out what we could do to meet their needs. We thought a grocery gift card would be helpful, and when Kroger found out about what we were doing, they wanted to help. And we found more companies who were in support of our mission. We created relief gift packages with Crocs, Kroger, and Starbucks gift cards, and a bunch of cookies local bakeries had contributed.

MI: One thing that has shocked us was the incredible passion we saw from companies who were very open to helping and recognizing people who don’t get the recognition they deserve. It was a tangible manifestation that echoed the sentiments of the people standing on their balconies clapping for physicians and nurses.

Dox: What’s something that has surprised you about this project and these stories? What have you learned?

TS: As different people have different perspectives, we’re all still human, and we’re all afraid of this unknown virus. There are a lot of things that unite us in times of crises. How we respond has been really revealing. You realize this is universal and no matter if the storytellers are a custodial worker or an Olympic athlete, we’re all going through the same thing in different ways, but we’re not alone.

MI: Everyone has obstacles and had their lives flipped upside down by this whole situation, and they’re [each] coming up with a different solution and moving forward. We saw so much resilience — I think it speaks to how no matter what you’ve been through, you have that power to just keep going. It was incredible to me.

Dox: How has sharing their stories impacted the lives of the storytellers?

MI: Tommy is one of the custodians at the VA who shared his story. He has so much passion for veterans and keeping them safe. He was understandably fearful as an older person with co-morbidities. After we interviewed him, he went through coronavirus himself. He said that being able to share his story, and read the stories of others, he realized he wasn’t alone. He might be scared to put his life on the line, taking precautions while cleaning rooms, and still ending up with COVID-19, but everyone was facing something unknown. He would face the situation the way others had. He was proud of himself for what he’d been able to do in sharing his stories. It helped him get through that scary situation. Tommy is OK now.

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