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A Mother Prepares Her Daughter For Working In Medicine Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The need for medical care workers to help on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic has grown increasingly urgent. States are calling on retired doctors and nurses to return to work despite the risks. Several medical schools are graduating students early so they can begin their hospital residencies. Here is one of those students.

JOSIE FISHER: My name is Josie Fisher. I am a fourth-year medical student and public policy student at Harvard Medical School.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As Josie prepares to start her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, her mother, a retired doctor in Vermont, is also considering volunteering.

NAN COCHRAN: My name is Nan Cochran. I'm Josie's mother. And I am retired from my clinical practice at the White River Junction VA Medical Center.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mother and daughter had talked about the dangers of the virus as the death toll climbed. But when they heard that Jose could start her residency early, it suddenly became personal.

FISHER: I'd say I feel nervous. I think starting residency at any time is nerve-wracking. It's the first time we practice as a physician. And then to do it in the middle of what's happening right now in hospitals around the country adds a whole other layer. I've no doubt that it's still going to be harder than I ever envisioned.

COCHRAN: I won't lie. I couldn't sleep the first night I heard you might start early - try not to cry. I'm excited that you're going to be able to work where you are because I have faith that they're going to provide you with adequate protection because that's my biggest fear for anybody who is face-to-face with COVID-positive patients, not just health care workers.

FISHER: I'm most worried about patients and their loved ones. As health care workers, one of our major roles is to help support patients and their families through these really uncertain and scary moments in their life. And I also worry about whether or not we have the ability to do that, given kind of the volume of patients we're seeing right now.

COCHRAN: I'm curious what you feel has best prepared you in your life and in your medical school education for this moment?

FISHER: I mean, this is an unprecedented moment in at least 100 years of history. So I can't pretend that (laughter) anything makes me feel that I've done anything similar to what we're doing now. But I would say I feel that you and Dad really modeled, from a young age, to your kids that, you know, one of our responsibilities was try to go make the world better in some way and do the hard thing. And you showed us kind of how to work really hard while also maintaining some balance in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FISHER: So you are mostly retired now, at least from clinical care. But you've been thinking about how you might get involved in helping to treat COVID patients, if you're asked. So when was the last time you worked? - because you've been a primary care doctor. When was the last time that you worked in a hospital?

COCHRAN: Yeah. So that's been a long time. So I've been in a clinical setting my entire career, which is close to 40 years now. I stopped attending on the wards - so taking care of very sick patients and working in ICUs - roughly 20 years ago. So I'm clearly not comfortable or competent to take care, manage patients in an ICU setting - patients who are on a ventilator. So that, of course, gives me pause and makes me think either I need to get retrained quickly or work in some other capacity.

FISHER: It's interesting to think about what it was, like, you know, almost - basically 40 years ago when you started residency, when you were in my shoes.

COCHRAN: So that was in 19 - June of 1981, which is exactly when CDC declared that there was - what was later called the AIDS epidemic. The first cases were reported in June of '81. I remember we were very nervous about it. We didn't really understand transmission. There was no treatment. There was no ability to diagnose it definitively for a long time. I think just starting residency alone is a daunting time. I remember being terrified of my first night alone in the emergency room, my first night in the ICU. We didn't have the same level of supervision as you now have, thankfully. That's a major improvement in health care.

(LAUGHTER)

COCHRAN: We were on our own a lot.

FISHER: That's terrifying.

COCHRAN: Yeah. It felt terrifying. And that was not in a pandemic like now.

FISHER: I know this was joking. But when I was a kid, after a hard day of work, you used to say to me (laughter) and my sisters, you should never become a doctor.

COCHRAN: (Laughter).

FISHER: But I now wonder if you feel that even more.

COCHRAN: No, I really don't. What advice I have for you both as my daughter and as a young person starting their medical career in this tough time - I really hope that you don't do things that are really dangerous because it's going to be tempting to say yes when people ask you to do more and more and more. So my advice is to recognize your limits.

I know that you're really good at listening. And I think listening is going to be key, particularly with patients. You know, asking them about their fears and your relationship with them will really matter. So literally just looking them in the eyes, saying something positive and supportive - every patient you interact with - will really help them.

FISHER: Yeah. That's really, really good advice. Thanks, Mom.

COCHRAN: That was medical student Josie Fisher and her mom, retired Dr. Nan Cochran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.