As a seven-year-old New Jersey girl, Dr. Ann Polcari’s parents moved her grandmother into their home to live her last year of life with them. Lung cancer had nearly overtaken her body and Ann witnessed the personal, loving care her parents provided. She died in their home, leaving an impression on Ann that eventually led to her decision to become a surgeon.
“Watching my parents’ comfort and care for my grandmother each day as her health deteriorated played a major role in my decision to pursue a career in medicine.” Ann said.
Today, Ann is a resident surgeon, often working 80-hour weeks in the University of Chicago’s trauma unit where the majority of her work is repairing the damage of gun violence. She chose Chicago’s southside to make a tangible impact. The first quarter of 2020 recorded a 13% increase in gun violence, when compared with the first quarter of 2019. And when the coronavirus hit in March, hospitals – including the trauma units – started restricting patient families from visiting. Ann recalls a distinct change and the palpable fear that spread throughout the hospital teams at this point.
While pre-pandemic work focused on scheduled surgeries and medical care, the post-pandemic work flow shifted focus to include countless lengthy phone conversations with patients’ families who were urgently trying to ensure that their loved one, who was already in a compromised health situation, was protected from the virus. Ann and her colleagues worried about going to work, possibly exposed to the virus themselves and in return, giving it to their patients. Even with personal protective equipment, the unknowns added stress and uncertainty to the formerly normal workday.
Time is critical in the trauma unit and testing for the virus puts the patients’ lives in greater risk. Yet, not testing puts the medical team, hospital staff and other patients at risk. Decisions like these, made in seconds take their toll on nurses and physicians.
“One night, a young patient came into the ER who had been shot multiple times. We operated for twelve hours.” Ann recalled. “I called the patients Mom to ask if he’d been sick only to learn that he had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. We had to transfer him from the intensive care unit to the COVID unit immediately.”
Walking into a firestorm and learning how to rise above the challenges is a characteristic Ann developed as a pole vaulter and member of the track team. She learned how to pole vault from her high school coaches who also ran a club team called the Flying Circus.
“Having the local club team was pivotal in holding my interest in the sport because there was a place to practice out of season.” she said.
And when presented with the choice between taking a scholarship for a local college and going to the University of Notre Dame, her dream school and family alma mater, she chose Notre Dame, but not to the exclusion of pole vaulting.
“When Ann was a freshman, she emailed the Notre Dame track coach and asked to try out. Pole vaulters can be hard to find. She tried out and made the team,” Nicole Hammond, her athletic trainer recalls. “She quickly became a leader to the pole- vaulting group and eventually to team, always giving 110%.”
Success as a student athlete requires building skills in addition to the sports related technical ones. These translate into life skills that now contribute to her success as surgeon and in making the difficult calls and decisions this pandemic has added.
“Learning time management is a given requirement for all student athletes., In pole vaulting, I learned to appreciate the challenge and to trust that I have the inner strength and clarity of mind to get through whatever I’m facing.”
Ann faced such a challenge her junior year, when she suffered a serious knee injury that resulted in a year of therapy and a complete physical retraining without any certainty that she would ever be able to compete again. What she hoped would be six months turned into a full year, where learning to walk, run and jump were the first tasks at hand.
“Ann always gave it everything she had and never felt sorry for herself, even with an uncertain outcome.” Nicole Hammond recalls. “It was her personal, every day effort, watching and helping her team mates in addition to her personal rehabilitation that contributed to her increased performance a year later.”
Ann deferred her ability to compete and in her 5 th year at Notre Dame, completed a Master of Science in Global Health. Little did she know at the time that the broader perspective would give her additional empathy when helping patients and their families understand this year’s worldwide COVID19 outbreak.
Unfortunately, people continue to hurt each other and the pace of in the trauma unit continues during the current pandemic. But without family support, patients rely more on their physicians for reassurance inside the hospital, as do the families outside of the hospital.
“There was one woman, who had been ill a long time. She was dying and felt scared and isolated. Her family felt the same and did not want her to face death alone. Desperate, they wanted to facetime each other but the woman didn’t have a device. It’s heartbreaking.” Ann said, “so -like many of my colleagues – I gave the family my personal cell number. The video call was the first time, I’d seen the intubated woman respond in months. She mouthed ‘I love you’ to her family, as if it was for the last time.”
Dr. Ann Polcari is one of the thousands of like-minded medical professionals facing their fears and
calming those of others, tirelessly and without a certain end. She reminds us that each of us can do our part individually to protect those at highest risk by following the published guidelines, despite the feelings that we aren’t really making an impact. And to remember the most marginalized, like the homeless and others who can’t social distance themselves, as they face some of the biggest risks during socio-economic stress.
“I’m not surprised to hear that Ann is on the frontlines.” Hammond states.” She’s a natural leader with a high level of emotional intelligence, and is typically more aware of others more than herself.”
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