One year ago, we profiled Manuel Cabrera (‘11) as part of our #ProudTZGrad social media campaign. As of our March 4, 2020 posting date, Manuel was a first-year internal medicine resident at George Washington University Hospital. When this photo resurfaced a few weeks ago, thanks to Manuel’s aunt, Cottage Lane Elementary School teacher Maria Vega-Cabrera, we reached out to follow up.
“Shortly after my previous interview, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and my job changed in ways that I never imagined. As a resident, you are used to being in a position of inexperience and constant learning. While you are responsible for making medical decisions, ultimately, the attending physician supervising the team has the final say in patient care. The pandemic evened the playing field as seasoned doctors were unable to lean on one of their most useful skills: experience. This was a new disease that everyone, regardless of how long you had been a doctor, had the same knowledge of treating. It was empowering being a resident and knowing as much about treating patients with COVID-19 as my supervising doctors. It was also extremely intimidating because I had to mature as a doctor much quicker than normally expected in order to provide adequate care for so many patients.
“After weeks of treating a never-ending flow of patients with COVID-19, work became exhausting. Daily work became difficult because hospital/residency program policies were constantly changing. Our schedules were in flux to ensure shifts were covered for residents
in quarantine. There were months where I almost exclusively treated COVID patients and it frustrated me because I felt like I wasn’t learning how to diagnose and treat other diseases. The emotional toll of feeling helpless watching so many patients suffer in their rooms alone was overwhelming and something I hope to never experience again. I have always enjoyed interacting with patients, but the pandemic forced us to limit this to preserve PPE (personal protective equipment) and reduce the risk of exposure.
“Now that we’re a year in, work has slowly started to shift back in the pre-pandemic direction. Our schedules are back to normal and I see a variety of patients because people are no longer terrified of coming to the hospital. When we do have a patient with COVID, the hospital system overall is much better equipped to treat them.
“For the past month, I’ve had the privilege of working at the National Institutes of Health. It has been amazing to learn from Dr. Fauci and the many other world-renowned physicians who work there as I wrap up my second year of residency training.
“My biggest takeaways from this past year are the value of being flexible and adaptable, the vital importance of compassion and empathy, and the need to always be actively learning. As stressful as the constant changes in workflow were, I became comfortable with change and it has made me a more efficient and confident doctor. People avoided being around me once they discovered that I was a doctor treating COVID positive patients. This prejudice was initially angering and hurtful, but with time, I realized this behavior was coming from a fear that I could understand and relate to on some level. This experience taught me the importance of walking in the other person’s shoes and has made me a more compassionate doctor in the process.
“When I look back to where we started a year ago when the pandemic hit and see how far we’ve come, I’m proud of myself and the medical community as a whole for all that we have accomplished. The desire to continue learning despite seemingly impossible circumstances has saved so many lives and will make our world a safer place moving forward.”
Manuel, in the blue checked tie, was working with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, during the filming of an upcoming PBS documentary profiling Fauci’s career. (Broadcast details not available at this time.)