First Person: How I Spent My Summer Fighting a Pandemic
The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 presented a number of challenges for Baylor students — but it also provided students with some new opportunities. In this First Person essay, Taylor Siebenman, a junior University Scholar from Ballwin, Missouri, who is concentrating her studies in healthcare, describes how she spent a summer in nearby St. Louis, helping the city’s health department track the spread of the virus there.
In summer 2020, I enrolled in the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP). The Shepherd Consortium is a national program dedicated to helping students better understand their roles in limiting poverty and empowering human capability by matching them with a community organization. My original placement was with the Bradley Free Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia. The clinic focuses on providing comprehensive healthcare services for low income and underinsured members of their community. I was excited to join their team in helping to care for the patients and to gain some clinical experience as I prepare to apply for medical school. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had other plans.
As the situation revolving around the COVID-19 virus became more apparent, SHECP canceled most in-person internships, and organizations began providing their interns with opportunities to serve remotely. As the severity of the pandemic grew, most of the healthcare-related organizations withdrew for the safety of patients, providers and SHECP interns alike. I was devastated to hear the news and began to seek out an alternate placement.
In the end, I was connected with the City of St. Louis Department of Health. I had the honor to serve with their communicable disease department and help track the spread of COVID-19 in the St. Louis community. Alongside a team of disease investigators, I focused on contact tracing — the process by which a positive COVID-19 case is investigated in order to identify individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
“The most rewarding aspect of my experience was getting the honor of hearing the stories of members of my community who were struggling with COVID-19. I talked to everyone from professional athletes to single mothers. It was a very uplifting experience to connect people in need with their communities when most of them were feeling isolated and alone.”
When someone tested positive for COVID-19, that person’s test results were reported to the health department using a database. Due to the staggered timing of multiple different testing sites, we would receive hundreds of new cases a day. A disease investigator would reach out to the individual that tested positive and conduct an interview to record demographic information, medical history, any underlying conditions and symptoms related to the virus. The most important part of the interview was recording any family members or friends that the positive individual had been in contact with while infected with COVID-19. Calls were then made to any contacts of the original case subject in order to inform them of their exposure and to ensure they understood the proper procedure for quarantine.
As part of my duties, I was also involved in our COVID-19 hotline, where members of the St. Louis community could call in with any questions or concerns they had regarding COVID-19 and quarantine. I fielded questions about everything from whether the virus could be transferred in ice cream to the location of available testing sites in the area. I never knew what someone was going to ask me when I picked up the phone!
The most rewarding aspect of my experience was getting the honor of hearing the stories of members of my community who were struggling with COVID-19. I talked to everyone from professional athletes to single mothers. I was able to learn how COVID-19 was affecting the lives of individuals on a very intimate level. There were concerns about traveling, childcare, groceries, prescriptions and more. Asking individuals to quarantine for two weeks is akin to asking them to put their lives on hold. It is a daunting task and often a frustrating proposition. I was able to direct patients to local organizations and services that were able to provide answers to most of these concerns. It was a very uplifting experience to be able to connect people in need with their communities in a time when most of them were feeling isolated and alone.
That summer, I also experienced the compassion and kindness of those working at the Department of Health. Many households in our community did not have thermometers to be able to monitor their family’s symptoms. Members of the disease investigation team would spend a few hours in the evening hand-delivering thermometers to those who needed them. I’ll never forget their dedication and compassion, and I hope to take those qualities with me as I prepare for a career in medicine.
The hardest aspect of my experiences was that there weren’t always solutions to the problems that COVID-19 caused for members of my community. Sometimes when I hung up the phone, I did so with a feeling of helplessness because I knew there was nothing I could do to help. It was especially difficult to deliver the news that someone had tested positive or had been exposed to a positive case when they had health conditions that made them vulnerable to severe symptoms or even death. I’ll never know if some of those patients recovered.
Witnessing the devastating effects of COVID-19, especially among those with inadequate access to healthcare and other resources, has made me more dedicated than ever to understanding the social determinants in health and how I can make a difference as a physician. In the future, I hope to serve the St. Louis community as a physician who understands the challenges people face and who works to find solutions that can be effective for everyone.