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COVID-19 brings out ‘resilience and valor’

Young doctor inspired to embark on second residency.

After Dr. Samantha Peterson finished her four-year family practice residency, she was inspired to begin a second residency, focusing on infectious diseases, inspired by fighting to save COVID patients at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields.
After Dr. Samantha Peterson finished her four-year family practice residency, she was inspired to begin a second residency, focusing on infectious diseases, inspired by fighting to save COVID patients at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields.
Provided photo

In the spring of 2020, Franciscan Health Olympia Fields, like so many hospitals, was reeling under the onslaught of that first deadly wave of COVID-19. Patients gasping for air crowded the emergency room. Medical supplies ran low, treatment procedures changed by the hour, it seemed, with no vaccine in sight.

In the middle of it was a young medical resident, Dr. Samantha Peterson. Her focus was family practice — those generalists treating everyone from newborns to the elderly for everything from colic to arthritis. But just then she happened to be doing her emergency medicine rotation.

For two months, Peterson did nothing but treat COVID-19 patients.

“Our numbers kept increasing,” Peterson recalled. “In the ER triage, all COVID patients had these biohazard symbols. In early March, there were a handful. By the end of March the entire ER was full of hazard symbols. I didn’t have a choice.”

Peterson thought she didn’t have a choice. But more experienced doctors saw it differently, and some shied away from treating COVID-19 patients. The young intern ran in while others drew back.

“We were a pretty hard hit hot zone hospital,” said Dr. Shanaz Azad, an infectious disease specialist leading the COVID-19 task force at Franciscan. “Sam Peterson was a medical resident. She really stepped up. I’d say 90 percent of the work Sam did, she volunteered to put her life in harm’s way. This is a novel virus. We didn’t know anything about it. She participated in the care of 2,000 COVID patients. She had no business seeing that many. This was all altruism. She was so inspired. So intense.”

Dr. Samantha Peterson.
Provided photo.

That doesn’t mean Peterson wasn’t afraid.

“The biggest fear was the unknown behind it,” she recalled. “We didn’t know, is this surgical mask enough? To me, the biggest fear was, ‘Am I going to get this? Am I going to give it to other people?’”

Doctors in training undergo residency training, a grueling slog. Peterson finished her three-year family practice residency and was board-certified in July. Then she promptly began a second residency: two years of internal medicine to be followed by a two-year infectious disease fellowship. Non-doctors might not grasp how extraordinary that is.

Nobody wants to do another residency,” said Azad, a 17-year veteran. “She’s the only one in my 17 years who changed a field. I’ve never seen it. People can’t wait to move on.”

When doctors do change fields, it’s usually years earlier.

“People do switch fields, but usually within their specialty, and they tend to do it before their boards,” said Dr. Janis Orlowski, MD, the chief health care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. She said while it’s too early to know how COVID-19 is affecting medical education, generally, it would not be surprising to find it has an influence.

“During COVID we really have seen infectious disease specialties and critical care specialties shine, when people are choosing a specialty,” she said. “They want to like the material, and see themselves becoming more knowledgable and involved in that branch of medicine.”

You could say Peterson, 30, has already spent her life preparing.

“It’s a pretty long journey to become a doctor,” said Peterson, who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. “My mom was an ER nurse. My mom really encouraged me to be a doctor, my whole life. She was always showing me the hospital. My dad, a material engineer, encouraged me.”

She studied nutritional science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, then went to the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in Downers Grove.

Seeing medicine’s response to COVID-19 inspired her.

“The whole world is coming together to research, to find out, what is this virus?” she said. “How are we going to find a way to treat people with it? I really enjoyed it, research studies, this really, really thorough process. A lot of people never want to do anything with infectious diseases. Maybe I was crazy, but I actually enjoyed this.”

“Enjoyed” might be a surprising word. She’s thinking of a particular moment with a particular patient.

“This one patient followed the classic course of COVID,” Peterson said. “Shortness of breath, and within hours, she started to need a lot more oxygen. She ended up needing a tube in her throat intubated. After a few days she ended up doing quite well. I’ll never forget when she was extubated, because she was getting better. She was just so, so grateful. The most genuine gratitude that I’ve ever seen from a patient. It was very touching. That was one thing very meaningful to me. This is something I could do long term, to help people who are really sick.”

COVID-19 is only one infectious disease. She’ll be studying the range, from sexually transmitted diseases to exotic ailments.

“All different types of things,” she said. “Infections happen anywhere in the body. Infections in the heart. Tropical infections. A whole world out there. A fascinating world. It’s really exciting to learn about all the other infections out there.”

Peterson is slated to complete her new residency around 2025.

“I’ll be at least another four years on the educational track,” she said. “It’s a worthwhile investment.”

COVID-19 isn’t over by a long shot, and while society can barely tally the toll, for the worse, we should at least pause to realize that it also changed some people for the better, like the family practitioner who decided to become an infectious disease specialist.

“Hardships don’t change who we are, they reveal who we are,” said Azad. “That is exactly what happened. I feel like the masks came off, and you really saw people’s resilience and valor.”