Voices: How 10 Weeks Changed Everything | Sarah Lynam, MD
Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. It was weeks before the spread of COVID-19 dominated headlines, months before the end of a deafening silence on systemic injustice as part of our national identity, an otherwise ordinary winter day in the Northeast, and exactly 504 days until the end of my fellowship training (yes – I’m still counting).
The American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology sent an email correspondence to trainees regarding an updated leave policy whereby annual limits for accredited GYN Oncology trainees were extended by four weeks. I was in my third trimester at the time and to this day, consider myself extremely fortunate in the timing of this announcement allowing me precious time with my newborn. This gift offered much needed relief after personal struggles with infertility and pregnancy loss further tipped the balance of an active clinical and research schedule as a rising senior fellow to complete burnout. My program director reached out in full support of extending my leave to the yearly limit to enjoy our early days as a family of three and the world seemed ripe with opportunity.
But a lot changed over the time I was gone: my personal growth as a mother, a pandemic, and a collective and exponentially growing sense of unease coincided with a surge of COVID-19 at my home institution, just in time for my return to work. The end of my leave was met not with a bang but a whimper–as the challenges of trainee education, surgical volume, and the emotional toll of patient care on cancer wards at a six-foot distance marred the reprieve I had between sleepless nights at home. A part of me felt as if I left colleagues, nurses and friends in the trenches with the realization that we were early in our days fighting an ongoing battle against COVID, with many already burning out.
Days have since turned into months. The collective experience for us as providers treating cancer in patients lacking their village of support during chemotherapy infusions, surgical recovery, or hospitalization at end of life remind us not to neglect our own wellness. The days even shorter than they felt before the world changed. I have learned to share my own experiences with burnout, successes and losses, and lead in a way not possible pre-pandemic: by embracing the challenge in caring for the mind-body-spirit not just of my patients, but of colleagues, trainees, and myself. It has been through these challenges I have learned to protect time with family as much as I had in those early weeks, to encourage others to do the same, and to maintain an open dialogue.
Because we do this for the over 400,000 lives no longer being lived. To support the patients fighting cancer with a different version of their village. We keep on as our best possible selves.
Sarah K. Lynam, MD, is a gynecologic oncology fellow at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY.