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Tears, Anxiety, Desperation: When Patients Learn They Tested Positive


So in between the test and the result is the wait for the phone to ring. And on the other end of that phone call is often someone like our next guest. Dr. Caroline Schulman is a third-year resident at George Washington University, and she wrote an article this past week in Stat about her experience informing people that they tested positive for COVID-19. And she joins us now from the hospital where she's on a 13-hour shift.

Thanks so much for taking a break and being with us today.

CAROLINE SCHULMAN: Thanks so much for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I imagine it's really scary for people to find out that they've tested positive. What kind of reactions do you get?

SCHULMAN: Most people I found were - especially in March, when we knew so much less than we do now and we still have a lot to learn - they had a lot of questions, a lot of anxiety. I had some folks cry. Some people were relieved to just talk to someone. They had been isolating in their house, waiting for their tests results. And then some people were really relieved to find out an explanation for their symptoms. And by the time I had called them, sometimes they were feeling better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand we have to keep people's privacy. But you did, in your article, give sort of general descriptions of some of the stories that you heard. Can you tell us a few now? What kinds of people were testing positive, and what did that tell you?

SCHULMAN: The people I found testing positive were from all walks of life. Our low-income populations seem to be especially more vulnerable in this pandemic. The issue of overcrowding and housing in D.C. and many other cities is ongoing. And in the setting of a pandemic, it further highlights our needs for more social services in these areas. Some resources did exist, and I would get what I could to my patients, but it was definitely a role outside of what I had done previously in terms of practicing medicine. It expanded into other areas that really affected people's health and public health.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You describe a man called Jeff who lives alone and who has a chronic blood condition but who had to resume his job as a rideshare driver because he needed to make ends meet.

SCHULMAN: Yeah. Unfortunately, that was - that wasn't an uncommon reaction that I would find when telling people their results - really think people were trying the best they could, but some people really couldn't miss a day's work or a week's work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The headline of this article was "It Was My Job To Call People Whose COVID-19 Tests Were Positive. That Taught Me A Lot About Medicine, The Law And Society." Can you explain what you learned?

SCHULMAN: Yeah. I think it highlights the fact that health depends on so much more than just hospitals. It's really difficult as probably anyone, but especially as a physician, to know how to help in those situations. I wasn't trained on how to help someone who lives in an overcrowded house self-isolate. Like, I wasn't trained on how to help somebody get food. Like, it wasn't on my boards. It wasn't on any of the tests I took. I just was determined and dedicated and tried to figure out everything I could while I was making these phone calls.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Dr. Caroline Schulman.

Thank you very much.

SCHULMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.

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