I had a vague sense that doctors generally suffer more from stress than most of us, considering the long hours, high stakes, and zero tolerance for error environment their jobs entail. But some of the statistics cited by senior editor Trey Popp in this issue’s cover story, “The Museum Prescription,” were nevertheless eye-opening.
Trey quotes a 2019 survey showing that 15 percent of doctors were experiencing some level of depression, and in which almost half reported feeling burned-out—numbers that have likely only grown worse since the coming of the pandemic. Coping mechanisms included alcohol use and binge eating, as well as exercise, but the most common one cited was self-isolation. Most respondents said they had no plans to share their difficulties with others—and few could identify available programs where they worked that would offer help if they sought it.
The title of the article comes from a theory that engaging with works of art can provide a framework for medical professionals to better understand, talk about, and relieve their stress, helping to counter feelings of burnout. Specifically, Trey’s article describes Rx/Museum, a yearlong collaboration among Penn Medicine, the Slought Foundation, and other Philadelphia art institutions to offer doctors and others the opportunity to view selected artworks, along with prompts for reflection, via the internet. Though the project was in the planning for a couple of years, it has turned out to be well-suited to the present, virtual, moment.
He also profiles one of the guiding figures behind the initiative, Lyndsay Hoy GM’16, an anesthesiologist who discovered during her residency that she had a progressive, life-threatening lung disease and has led earlier programs for Penn health workers. Her insights from the perspective of both doctor and patient provide a rich human dimension to the story—and an example of wisdom and strength of character that is both inspiring and daunting!
When Susan Weiss first learned about SARS-CoV-2, she says she felt “shock and not shock. Surprise—but thinking, ‘Well, we should have known.’” In “The Mother of Coronaviruses” (a joking self-description by Weiss), frequent contributor Julia Klein details the Penn microbiologist’s four decades studying coronaviruses in mouse models, as well as her experience as a woman making her way in a male-dominated field.
Except for brief periods when the first SARS virus and MERS emerged, up until this year Weiss and a small cohort of fellow coronavirologists worked in relative obscurity, motivated by scientific curiosity. Now she is much in demand for podcasts, virtual conferences, and magazine articles, while her lab at Penn continues to operate at full speed to aid in the search for effective treatments and vaccines. But those decades of past work have already been invaluable. Without them, “we would not have been able to grow the virus and understand how it works,” Weiss’s former department chair told Julia. “The basic science has saved us years of research.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to affect every aspect of our lives. For associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 and his family that included the painful but necessary decision to euthanize their beloved pet dog, Sammie. In “Lapping Up a Final Act of Love,” Dave writes about how they were helped in that task by Brad Bates V’10, who works for Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice and in-home euthanasia service. It’s both a moving and finely rendered personal story and a revealing look at a career choice that can offer a veterinarian unexpected fulfillment. “I think people don’t realize how much love we are exposed to,” Bates told Dave. “We always tell vets to do this work for a while before you judge it.”
One detail in the story has to do with the vet’s difficulty in collecting Sammie’s body, since neighborhood construction had blocked off Dave’s street—the kind of inconvenience city dwellers tolerate in exchange for the many attractions of urban life … which the pandemic has rendered inaccessible, while also laying bare and worsening extreme and longstanding inequities in income, housing, healthcare, and policing.
For “A Reset for Cities?” frequent contributor JoAnn Greco sought out experts among alumni and on Penn’s faculty to get their takes on what’s next for America’s cities and how they can survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world. While the challenges are formidable, one of her sources, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter W’79, sounded a note of optimism: “It’s been horrible but we’ll get through this.”
—John Prendergast C’80