Struggling to Remain Engaged: A Frank Conversation Between Two Friends on the Toll of the Pandemic on Productivity
Don: I last boarded a plane on February 8, 2020. Days earlier, I was in Florida for the Miami Breast Conference and later, for the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health. Travel had become part of my life and I never tired of talking on topics important to me, and even more, getting together with colleagues from across the country, many of whom I counted as friends. I was afraid that by saying this out loud, people would criticize me for being superficial. After all, I am still getting the invites, still publishing, and still networking—it’s just moved to a virtual environment. So I asked my friend, Dr. Anne Katz, about this. I’ve known Anne for years and we used to compare notes on where we had just come from and where we were going next. We would connect in Las Vegas each year, where we lead a workshop on sexual health after cancer. Because we haven’t been able to see each other in person, I asked her her thoughts by e-mail.
Anne: I flew to Dallas-Fort Worth on March 9th, 2020 to give a presentation. I nearly turned back twice, once when I arrived at my home airport and then again where I connected to my flight to DFW. I had the forethought to bring wipes with me and I cleaned every surface I touched—from the chair in the airport lounge to the back seat of the cab. I cleaned the lectern before I started to present, and I covered the clicker with another wipe as I advanced my slides. I returned home on a Sunday and the next day, Canada closed our borders.
Don: We are now one year in to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wear masks and goggles in clinic, I haven’t hugged or shaken hands with patients or colleagues favoring the physical distancing, required to keep all of us safe. I spend hours and hours on Zoom and Teams calls, and coming into 2021, I didn’t mind it. I was too concerned about everything and everyone else: keeping my colleagues safe, ensuring our patients could continue access to the cancer center, and keeping my family safe, including my mom who lived thousands of miles away.
Anne: My patient appointments are now on the phone or Zoom. I struggle with providing the kind of support I used to; no longer can I reach out a hand to comfort a woman crying in my office as she talks about her sex life after cancer.
Don: But I realize something else now. I am less engaged, less motivated. I am starting to burn out. The talks, papers, and projects are less interesting. My tasks stare at me and I just stare back. The curiosity that drove me to meet my deadlines and the pride I felt when I finished a project have given way to ennui. Instead of preparing my list of five things to complete each day, I now find myself daydreaming—fantasizing the return to a pre-COVID existence. All the while, conferences planned in 2020 to be live events in 2021 have retreated to virtual formats.
And I remain grounded, for who knows how much longer. I often thought the joy of academia was the recognition that you had become a key opinion leader and a content expert, measured in hard endpoints: papers published, lectures delivered, and other opportunities afforded. But as we move online, I cannot ignore one significant aspect of this work that made it worthwhile: the travel.
Anne: I miss everything about travel... the brief moment of the plane leaving the ground and the bounce as the wheels touch down on the tarmac. I miss the strange streets and the bland hotel rooms. But most of all I miss the audience whose faces focus on mine as I talk. I miss their smiles and laughter when I make a joke and the applause when I stop. I miss the questions that people ask as I leave the room. I miss knowing that I perhaps changed one person's practice.
Don: What I’ve come to realize is that expressing how much I miss the traveling aspects of academic medicine doesn’t take away my commitment to it. It’s just another recognition of how hard the pandemic has been, and that it absolutely affects those of us who have embraced our passion to educate the world. Admitting this has freed me to explore ways to cope: whether that be carving out a few hours in my day to roam vacation websites or home listings and fantasize a life outside the safety of my home or allowing myself time in my day to walk outside and just be, it’s important that my life not revolve around a computer screen.
Anne: For me it’s also about the battle to keep feeling grateful for all that I have—a job that I love that pays well, a comfortable home, a healthy family, and now, two doses of the Pfizer vaccine—while at the same time missing the life I used to have.
But most of all, it is the freedom to say out loud what so many of us must be thinking: we miss our
“old” life. And we are most certainly not alone.