The Pitt Prescription | A health care worker’s view of the pandemic

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and senior staff writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.

When I started pharmacy school this past August, I couldn’t have imagined how my second semester would go. If you told me I would be learning about pharmaceutical dosage forms and design via online classes or that all my patient interactions would be via telephone instead of in person, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me I would be using this blog to publish a personal narrative about what working in health care during a pandemic is like instead of my usual tips and tricks, I would have thought you were lying.

But this is the case for me and my fellow first-year student pharmacists here at Pitt. During this extremely weird and unpredictable time, there are many uncertainties and obstacles students and faculty in the health science schools are facing. When your entire curriculum is based upon patient interaction, how do you proceed in a remote manner? Zoom and other online platforms are helpful when it comes to didactic classes, but for the students already working in health care positions, like myself, remote learning doesn’t have the same impact.

The point of online classes is to ensure that students and faculty do not need to congregate in one space at a time to go over the class material. Instead, we can participate from the comfort of our own homes, a safe distance away from all others in the hopes of slowing down the spread of COVID-19

Many students decided to leave Pittsburgh and go back to the comfort of their own homes to finish the semester. I was offered this opportunity, however, I was unable to leave since I work in the inpatient hospital pharmacy at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. While many other establishments have shut down, essential organizations, such as hospitals, are still up and running. 

I started working in the pharmacy the week before fall semester classes started and it’s been a great learning experience for me. Being able to work in the same field that I am studying in school is very beneficial because it ties my academics into my work experiences. 

Even though we are facing a pandemic, our pharmacy is still up and running as normal. The biggest change that’s taken place is the fact that all employees are being assessed upon entry to the facility. When you walk in, you report to a station where they make sure you do not present with any of the common COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cough or shortness of breath. If you do not show any symptoms, you are given a mask and permitted to continue on to wherever you need to go.

To be honest, our workload hasn’t increased since this pandemic was announced, likely because children are not listed as an at-risk group for this virus. If anything, it’s been a bit more manageable due to many elective procedures being cancelled or postponed. As COVID-19 spreads throughout the United States, I do think hospitals will see an increase in the number of patients admitted, but as of now, we are not overwhelmed in any capacity. 

The main issue we are facing is supply shortages. We aren’t able to use the products or brands we normally use, but we still are able to get the materials and supplies we need to function. This is especially common in the IV room, AKA the clean room, which is a sterile compounding area within the pharmacy. 

We have to sanitize everything entering the room and all products used in a compound, so we go through a lot of alcohol spray and wipes. The normal wipes we get are backordered so we have to resort to using much larger alternative wipes in their place. We also have to be careful with our mask use so that we don’t waste any because they are in such high demand right now. 

I do get a bit nervous while working in a hospital at this time because I know many health care providers in other regions have been infected. Since I’m young and have a strong immune system, I know I’m not statistically likely to die if I get COVID-19, but I could still get very sick, which I want to avoid. As part of my job, I deliver certain medications to patient rooms throughout the hospital and I am getting increasingly apprehensive about this task. The COVID-19 virus is extremely contagious, so I feel as though each medication run I complete puts me at a higher risk for infection. Because of this, I am completely isolating myself from others when I’m not at the pharmacy. 

I haven’t seen any friends, family or other loved ones outside of work in about two weeks. It’s gotten to the point where I schedule Zoom meetings in advance so I can make sure I get a healthy amount of human interaction on days where I do not head into the pharmacy. 

The only non-pharmacy personnel I see are Uber drivers, who are also considered essential workers as of now. Port Authority has reduced the frequency of its buses and their routes, which has made commuting to work much more difficult for those of us without our own cars, myself included. Therefore, Uber drivers are my new main method of transportation.

It’s surprising to me that there are still many people willing to drive strangers around during this time, but after talking to different drivers I’ve realized there are a couple of main reasons behind this like generating income. Some drivers have been a bit hesitant to accept me as a rider when they see me in my black scrubs because they are nervous about having a health care worker in close proximity. Honestly, I don’t blame them. Luckily I have not yet been refused a ride, but I anticipate that may happen if the COVID-19 caseload picks up. 

Donning the black scrubs and working in the pharmacy is ultimately a rewarding experience that I am grateful to have. If you told me a year ago that we would be in a global pandemic and I would be considered “essential,” I wouldn’t have known how to respond. As a health care worker, I see the struggles my peers go through and I recognize how difficult this situation is for many people, especially those who are diagnosed with the virus. I feel lucky that I can play a role in helping my hospital function at this time because that is the reason I chose a health care field — I want to help others, even if it may put my own health at risk. 

All I ask of anyone reading this is that you stay home and practice social distancing. I am going to work each week with the possibility of contracting this illness to try and fight the pandemic, so the least you can do is follow health officials’ advice and stay away from others. Each social interaction increases the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, so please wait this out and use alternative forms of communication in the meantime. Stay safe everyone (and thank all the essential workers giving back to our community at this time)!