“At the peak of it, we really did feel like we were in a warzone.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped all of our lives. Not least of these, the lives of healthcare professionals working on the front-lines. Yet amidst the long, challenging days in the hospitals, the medical staff across the country consistently demonstrated care and compassion for their patients. How do they cultivate such enduring resilience?
In this forum, Mark Roberts, Buddhist in Residence at Maimonides Medical Center, along with team members Dr. Lawrence Wolf, MD, FACP and Chief Resident Dr. Shaurya Sharma, MD join in conversation with Garrison Institute’s own Lina Pasquale, Director of the Contemplative-Based Resilience Project, to discuss resilience in times of crisis.
Mark serves as a humanism and mindfulness leader in several teaching hospitals throughout New York City, equipping healthcare teams with contemplative tools within the demanding environment of medical facilities. Dr. Lawrence Wolf is the Residency Program Director and Vice Chair for Education in Internal Medicine at Maimonides Medical Center and has been a core faculty member of The Humanism Project (THP) since its inception. Dr. Shaurya Sharma is Chief Resident Physician at Maimonides Medical Center and has trained and educated over 100 medical residents during his tenure. Together, they discuss the many ways mindfulness practices and tools have anchored doctors, nurses and the greater hospital teams through some of the most challenging days of their careers.
The Humanism Project arose in response to what Dr. Wolf felt was a deficit in the training of new physicians entering residency. Although their medical school experiences were scientifically and academically rigorous, their educations had not always adequately prepared for them for the interpersonal and emotional challenges of working as a doctor. He points out that doctors need to be able to communicate clearly and sensitively with patients and their families around difficult issues, including delivering bad news and planning end-of-life care. They also need to find ways to care for their own mental health while working in extremely demanding environments.
The Humanism Project aims to both to provide interpersonal skills training and to address the wellbeing of residents themselves, which in turn impacts the level of care they are able to provide. Regular modules over the course of the three year residency deal with communication skills, sense of connectedness, understanding unconscious bias, biomedical ethics, and wellness practices. Mark Roberts is a core faculty member, and leads meditation practices at every session. Since its implementation six years ago, the program has served hundreds of residents.
In addition to discussing the impact of the program on the hospital as a whole, Mark Roberts, Dr. Wolf, and Dr. Sharma also discuss their own experiences coping with the pandemic as front-line workers. Dr. Sharma says that the program has strengthened trust and connectedness between physicians themselves, which has improved morale and helped make the team more coordinated as they have tackled the COVID-19 crisis over the past year. He describes the early days of the pandemic:
“Obviously no one believed this would happen to the peak that it did. Certainly I didn’t… I remember going to the first COVID rotation that I was assigned – I had the sense of fear, the sense of my own mortality… but that disappeared once it started happening. Once I was in the hospital, I saw every one of my colleagues, every peer of mine (and not just physicians and residents – [but also] PCPs, nurses, everyone in the hospital ) just come together on one thing – which was how to best take care of each other and our patients. And that kind of coalesced us into this one entity – which was a beautiful thing that happened organically.”
Mark Roberts, Dr. Sharma, and Dr. Wolf also discuss how they were able to find moments of joy in the chaos. They share stories of camaraderie in rare quiet moments shared with other workers, inspiration in the courageous actions of their peers, and encouragement in the gratitude and support expressed by the community.
Mark Roberts noticed early on that while the physicians grieved every patient they lost to COVID, they didn’t ever celebrate the success stories – all the patients that they were able to save. So he started a system where on their way out after their shifts, doctors pinned a flower up on the window for every recovered patient who had been released to go home that day. The simple act helped to remind people how crucial their work was, and the ever-growing “garden” of flowers became a symbol of hope.
Mark says that resilience is not something that healthcare workers developed spontaneously in response to the crisis – instead, it’s an “innate capacity” that they have built up gradually over time (supported by The Humanism Project) which became more visible during the crisis.
“It’s amazing to watch, when a group of people have a sense of mission. They knew what they had to do, and they rose to that occasion.”
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Mark Roberts A meditation practitioner for 30 years, Mark Roberts leads awareness and creativity workshops and seminars in the United States and Europe. He has developed and runs mindfulness and resiliency programs in several teaching hospitals in New York where he brings empathy and awareness techniques to Graduate Medical Education and faculty development. Mark has presented at medical conferences and teaches regularly in schools, universities, and arts organizations including, Maimonides Hospital Center, Mount Sinai Hospital, SUNY Downstate and NYU. He has volunteered with international NGO’s working in Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Niger, Tanzania, Jamaica, and Haiti.
Lawrence Wolf, MD, FACP is a board-certified general internist who has been actively involved in medical education for over 20 years. He practices both primary care and hospital-based medicine. He has been the Residency Program Director and Vice Chair for Education in Internal Medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY for the past 6 years. He was the Director of the Inpatient Teaching Service there for 4 years. Dr. Wolf also has board certification in Hospice and Palliative Medicine and an appointment as Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the SUNY Downstate College of Medicine.
Prior to his employment at Maimonides, Dr. Wolf was at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, NY, with roles including Associate Program Director of the Internal Medicine Residency, Director of the Division of Hospital Medicine, Site Director for third-year clerks, and Chairman of the hospital’s Ethics Committee. He has been actively involved regionally and nationally in the Association of Program Directors of Internal Medicine, serving a term as the President of the New York chapter. Dr. Wolf is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed his residency in internal medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Dr. Wolf has been a core faculty member of The Humanism Project (THP) at Maimonides Medical Center since its inception. He has been integrally involved in the curricular development and execution of all aspects of the Project. He has developed a unique perspective on the challenges in implementing a communication skills curriculum in a large, complex residency program. He has presented workshops on various topics at regional and national meetings. Among other publications, he has written chapters on medical education in the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine’s Textbook for Internal Medicine Education Programs and Textbook for Today’s Chief Medicine Resident.
Dr. Shaurya Sharma is a chief resident physician at the Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn. Dr. Sharma was born and raised in India where he finished his medical school and training in Ophthalmology in his home state of Punjab. After graduating from his Internal Medicine residency training in the summer of 2020, he has been involved in the training, education, and management of about one hundred residents at Maimonides. His special interests include medical education on social media platforms, narrative medicine, humanism in medicine and simulation training. His hobbies include revisiting the modern history of India, mythology, food and attending live music events. An avid cinephile, Dr. Sharma can always be found procrastinating about writing an award-winning script.