It is crazy to think that we are approaching the end of the second year of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. If the pandemic were a child, it would be walking, talking, and soon entering the “terrible twos”. In fact, my son was born in late February 2020, so all he knows is the pandemic. To him, masks are normal. He has even started to ask to wear a mask because that’s what everyone else does—mom, dad, his daycare teachers, his grandparents, his cousins. Though once he has one on, he quickly realizes that he prefers life without a mask.
Don’t we all, Andy?
As with most people, work life since the pandemic has changed. As a maternal-fetal medicine fellow, I’ve dedicated my training to the care of pregnant people and their fetuses, and I find the most fulfillment in the ultrasound suite. As cases rose, rooms filled with family and friends waiting for the words on the screen, “It’s a girl!”, during an anatomic survey became rooms with only a masked pregnant person and a masked sonographer (and the unmasked fetus, of course). While one adult support person has always been allowed to accompany each patient at our institution, they were frequently absent, whether they were working from home, caring for other children who are not allowed at appointments, or trying to limit exposures. Sonologists that previously were in and out of ultrasound rooms, scanning and counseling patients, were reading exams and counseling remotely.
Despite all the changes, the work continued. In fact, the pandemic has reminded us all that prenatal ultrasound is a medical necessity. At the height of the pandemic, elective medical procedures were canceled across the country. But the prenatal sonographers and maternal-fetal medicine specialists donned their N95s and face shields, and the prenatal ultrasound suite continued operation. In fact, cases that would have previously been managed with twice weekly non-stress tests were managed with weekly biophysical profiles instead to minimize potential exposures for a patient. Even with a current maternal diagnosis of COVID, arrangements were made to continue weekly umbilical artery Doppler studies for cases of fetal growth restriction. Some scans just cannot be delayed for 2 weeks. Despite all the changes, our purpose was clearer than ever—to provide excellent care for our patients, maternal and fetal.
With the widespread distribution of the vaccine and the decrease in cases, work life has settled into a “new normal”. Children have returned to in-person school, and the support person has returned to the ultrasound suite. N95s have been replaced by more comfortable surgical masks. Counseling a patient and their partner is no longer accompanied by the same degree of fear of a COVID exposure. But life is still far from my expectation of normal. The smiles after receiving the good news that there is one healthy intrauterine pregnancy with a strong heartbeat are still hidden behind cloth, as is the discomfort of an amniocentesis and the anguish when informed of a lethal fetal diagnosis. The impact that the mask continues to make on my ability to connect with and care for my patients cannot be understated.
As we head into the “terrible twos”, I know the pandemic will continue on and there will continue to be ups and downs. Misinformation regarding vaccination still limits widespread acceptance, but as research continues to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of vaccination, I still hold on to the hope that one day I will again be able to sit in a room with a patient unmasked and take in the unspoken communication I’ve so missed. But in the meantime, I’ll take the “new normal” and make the best of it for myself, my family, my colleagues, and my patients.
Kathy Bligard, MD, MA, FACOG, is a loving mom and third-year maternal-fetal medicine fellow at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO.
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