Sharing Our Stories: Alumnae Stories from the Pandemic

stern-delfiner-julie croppedStern-Delfiner, MD, is a 1989 graduate of Douglass. She earned her medical degree from Northwestern University Medical School in 1993 and today is a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a position she has held since completing fellowship training in 1999. Here is her story, shared on July 15, 2020.

I went to work on Monday, March 9, thinking it would be just another normal day in my pediatric oncology clinic. My husband and I had recently visited with a group of friends in Baltimore with whom we were planning a trip to Norway this summer. The weekend before, we had dinner with my parents (ages 77 and 91). I also had a lovely visit on the Douglass campus with sister alumna and friend, Beth Middleton Rizzotti ’89. Sure, we had heard reports that week of COVID-19 in New York, but it still seemed far away.

That changed the minute I walked into work and heard that one of my colleagues had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Suddenly COVID-19 was not a far-off concept that would be contained elsewhere. It was here and we were going to need to deal with it.

Those first weeks were some of the most difficult of my career. COVID-19 was all over the news. My staff had tons of questions. My patients and their parents, already facing the terrifying prospect of their child’s cancer diagnosis, were worried and frightened. Because I live close to where I work, my son’s school district was at the epicenter of the local Montgomery County community outbreak, one of the earliest counties in Pennsylvania affected by the pandemic. How could we keep everyone safe, fed, educated and maintain our mental health?

For those of you who don’t know me, I am not easily rattled. But there were nights when I just could not sleep as I worried about my patients, my co-workers, my family. Fortunately, I work for a large, academic health system and we were provided with incredible support starting the morning COVID-19 landed at our front door. This support has taken many forms and changed over time but continues to this day.

Initially, not much changed in the office. We saw every scheduled patient and tried to answer a zillion questions. Over the next few weeks, as it became more obvious that there was significant community spread in our area, patients who wished to put off their appointments to a later date, and for whom it was medically appropriate, did so. Our hospital system adjusted quickly, and we began telehealth in earnest within 10 days of the first case of COVID-19. Staff who were in a high-risk category, or who had a high-risk individual in their household, worked from home. Eventually, we were mostly seeing patients who were actively receiving chemotherapy, required medical support and those who had finished treatment within the past 6 months.

Since we were seeing fewer patients each day, I was able to spend more time with each family, trying to offer support and reassurance all the while having lots of questions myself. Was it possible that children were less symptomatic than adults? Would that mean I could be exposed at work and bring it home to my family without knowing I had been exposed? If so, how sick would we get?

Fortunately, over the past four months, as our understanding of the virus has grown, we have taken steps that have proven to be effective in limiting exposure and transmission risk. Within several weeks, our hospital went to universal masking for staff and eventually parents and patients were also required to wear masks at all times while in the building. (And yes, children, even children as young as 3-4 years old, are able to wear a mask for hours at a time.) Every patient has a telephone screening the day prior to their visit, which for some patients is a lot since they can be seen daily! Visitation policies changed so that only household adults could accompany their child to appointments and siblings would no longer be allowed in the center. These adjustments were very difficult initially, but ultimately safe and timely care continued uninterrupted, for which families are so very grateful.

But what about home? I go to the office every day, able to share in the stress of the situation with my co-workers. By the end of the first week, my husband was working from home and our eighth grader was adjusting to distance learning. They rarely left the house as I was also doing all of the grocery shopping, etc. Yes, they were home together but still, it was really hard.

The first time we decided to go for a socially distanced walk with my sister and my niece in late April/early May, our son became very upset, not wanting to leave the safe confines of home, afraid we would all get sick. It was at that moment that I knew we HAD to go on that walk and how difficult the past few months had been for him. We did hike that day, and it was the best thing at that moment that we could have done. Since then, Zoom visits with my parents have evolved into visiting with them in their backyard, still trying to see them in person but understanding that their age puts them at particularly high risk if they fall ill.

The tragedy of the past four months, the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the economic impact to our society, and the incomprehensible murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, should not, cannot, be minimized. But I truly believe there will be some positive, long term changes. White Coats for Black Lives was a powerful, moving experience, a peaceful protest that brought together 40-50 of my co-workers, from physicians to nurses to support staff, a multicultural show of support from the medical community that will hopefully be a step toward healing so many wrongs.

I see more people walking in our neighborhood than any time in the past 16 years, stopping to say hello, offering a smile and a friendly wave. The three of us have hiked and explored the local area in a way that we never even considered prior to this. We regularly watch movies together (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” seems to be the favorite ‘80s movie so far) when we can tear our son away from the Xbox. He has grown closer to his friends despite their physical distance and he will be spending the summer at home rather than his overnight camp (or “paradise,” as he calls it). I’ve learned to bake bread, and, in some ways, this time has fed my inner introvert. There are more birds in the backyard, less traffic and cleaner air.

The pain of this pandemic has not been shared equally, but I hope we are able to work together as a community so that we come out stronger on the other side. We must. There is no other choice. And please, wear a mask.

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