How I Briefly 'Repurposed' My Skills During COVID-19

By Emmylou Swartz, O.D., Milwaukee

Remember the week of St. Patrick’s Day when the U.S. suddenly found itself in the grips of a full-blown pandemic? Eyecare providers across the country, including at Veteran's Affairs medical centers, found themselves shutting down their exam lanes for the first time this century.

While the patient base my clinic sees tends to have more ocular disease than most, which lends itself to a busier urgent care schedule, clinic flow came to an almost grinding halt. Leadership at our medical center was faced with keeping a large number of healthcare providers, including optometrists, busy for eight hours a day. Our chief optometrist took over all triage and urgent care. That left me and one other full-time colleague with a lot of time on our hands.

Enter medical center administration. They knew exactly what to do with us. They had set up a massive, multifaceted incident management team, and they were recruiting like mad. An email from the hospital director inviting me to a “voluntary meet and greet” was code for “we will find out what else you are good at besides saying ‘which is better, 1 or 2,’ and we will then make this your job for the near future.” A nerve-wracking interview with medical center leaders, a few questions about my interests and talents and, just like that, I was officially part of the COVID-19 Public Information Office (PIO) team!

My New Title: Writer. Now What?

I was issued my own laptop and a key to the incident command meeting rooms. On the first floor of an older building, I was a long way from the 8th floor eye clinic in the main hospital, and I was about to find out just how different my days would be as a writer instead of an optometrist!

First off, there was always a deadline. Yes, we as optometrists have time constraints, overbookings and soft deadlines on how long it should take to finish a chart note. But we don’t have actual “give me a 500-word article with photos and several good quotes about yesterday’s $12,000 meal donation by noon today” hard deadlines. Those are the kind of deadlines that get your adrenaline pumping and questions soaring through your head like, “I’m sorry, how do I do that?”

Secondly, I’m showing my true age here, but when did two spaces after a period become abolished? My much younger new supervisor looked at me like I had three eyes when I expressed complete surprise about this development. I asked, “when did this happen?” His response was an eyeroll. (And no, my references to eyes are not a coincidence).

Evidently, us folks who learned typing when it was actually on a typewriter have a hard time training our finger muscles not to hit the spacebar twice after a sentence. I’m not kidding. Oh, and don’t get me started on the Oxford comma.

Meeting Brilliant Minds Who Keep the Place Running

The shortcomings I initially displayed in my new role eventually went away, and I found myself in an enjoyable temporary profession. From food trucks to virtual end-of-life family visits, to common sense advice on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus, I covered a variety of interesting topics for our website.

Seeing the inner workings of the administrative side of the medical center helped me understand just how many brilliant minds it takes to keep this gigantic place running. Working with a ton of new people who I normally would never even meet was especially rewarding. I had a new tribe, and it felt good.

There were other “repurposed” individuals on my team as well. We muddled our way through a lot of interesting assignments, crazy hours, road trips, forgotten camera batteries (oops) and accidentally erased memory cards (big oops).

Finding a New Rhythm

As the weeks ticked by, I found myself in a rhythm. Besides writing, I had several other duties, including signage. Specifically, I had to put up social distancing wall clings in all eight of our elevators. This involved riding elevators  from the first to the 10th floors trying to catch the right elevator to put the clings on. A scopolamine patch would have come in handy for that job!

Also, I picked up some new skills along the way, like videography. I was part of the heavy media coverage of a large event at which our hospital's first COVID patient was finally released. I got to try my hand at video recording with an iPhone mounted to a stabilizer, while walking backwards, crouching and trying to stay out of the actual news media’s way without falling on my derriere and making a fool of myself on TV. All those years of squats in the gym paid off!

There was also the scary side of what I was literally being paid to observe and record. When the COVID-19 numbers kept going up, I began to wonder whether I would ever see my patients again. I missed my “regulars” – you know – the glaucoma patients you see every four to six months. They had become like family. Some patients I had been seeing since the first day of my employment here 10 years prior. What if they contracted COVID-19? Would they be OK? Would I ever talk and laugh with them again during an exam? These are the types of questions that have plagued me — that have plagued every healthcare provider — for the past three months. But, as so many sidewalk-chalk messages and billboards have displayed, “We’re all in this together.”
And together is how we will move forward, one baby step at a time — and, of course, six feet apart.

Returning Home

As I finish up my last week as a writer and member of the public information team, it feels a little bittersweet. It’s almost like going home after summer camp: You feel excited to get back home and see your old friends, but you wonder whether you’ll keep in touch with your new friends.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I am definitely ready to get back to my exam lane. I’m just hoping I remember how to spin the dials and judge a C/D after two-plus months of absence. And I’m also wondering how my new case histories will look with only one space after each period.