Women make history during pandemic-era Women's History Month

March 08, 2021
Nurse Janet Byrne carries supplies in COVID unit.
Carrying her weight: Nurse Janet Byrne hauls supplies for COVID-19 patients. Photo by Sarah Pack

Women’s History Month finds women at the Medical University of South Carolina reflecting on the fact that they’re living through history. “This is really the biggest call to duty that I’ve ever been involved with,” said Cassy Salgado, M.D., hospital epidemiologist for MUSC.

Nurse Shemika Champion, the first person to get a COVID-19 vaccine at MUSC Health, agreed. “Women are true born leaders, and I continuously strive to change what’s possible within the health care community.”

Shemika Champion becomes first person at MUSC Health to get COVID-19 vaccine. 
Nurse Shemika Champion becomes the first person at MUSC Health to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Sarah Pack

To highlight the key role MUSC women are playing during the pandemic, we turned to employees on the front lines. They’re leaders, doctors, nurses, researchers, advocates, vaccine volunteers and laboratory whizzes. And each, in her own way, has been an important part of battling a pandemic – the likes of which we haven’t seen for more than a century.

This is by no means a complete list of the women making history during the pandemic – far from it. There are many others, from the pediatricians losing sleep as they help children battling COVID complications to the dedicated Environmental Services workers who had to learn a whole new set of guidelines for cleaning during a pandemic. But it’s a sample that shows just how significant the impact of women has been.

Leading the way

About 100 years ago, another pandemic swept the globe – a flu outbreak estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people. Women were highly visible in the battle to beat it back –  but not necessarily recognized as leaders. 

Almost all doctors at that time, 1918, were men. Women were “unsung heroes” –  nurses and other caregivers who risked their lives to help patients infected with a flu that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.

Nurse works during 1918 flu pandemic. 
A nurse works in the flu ward during the 1918 pandemic.

During the current pandemic, women are once again serving in highly visible roles. But this time, they’re taking the lead on multiple fronts. 

MUSC Health chief quality officer Danielle Scheurer, M.D., is leading the distribution of vaccines. “Women have been instrumental in the response to this pandemic. From the politicians, administrators, epidemiologists, researchers, laboratory personnel and bedside clinicians, women have been leading the way in all aspects, and in lockstep with each other, to get us to the other side of this pandemic.”

Salgado is MUSC Health’s chief disease detective, analyzing who’s at risk, deciding how to control the spread of COVID-19 and determining how to prevent such outbreaks in the future. 

“You feel capable to step up and help in the health system and the hospital. From a professional standpoint, that’s really rewarding –  that you can be in the right place at the right time to step up and respond.”

Dr. Danielle Scheurer gets COVID-19 vaccine. 
Dr. Danielle Scheurer gets a taste of her own medicine, the COVID-19 vaccine whose distribution she leads at MUSC Health. Photo by Sarah Pack

Krutika Kuppalli, M.D., an infectious disease leader with a background in emerging infections, global health and pandemic response, put women’s role in global perspective. “Women comprise 70% of the world’s health care workforce and have made significant personal sacrifices to care for those with COVID-19 over the past year,” she said.

“I have personally been inspired and motivated by all the women who have come out to lead in an unprecedented way during this pandemic. The silver lining is that I have developed friendships and collaborations with amazing women from all over the world, which wouldn’t have otherwise happened.”

Elizabeth Mack, M.D., a leader for quality improvement and patient safety in the Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, described what she’s seen closer to home. “I’m so inspired by the many roles our female colleagues and patients so effectively play in their lives –  saving lives and creating and raising tiny humans.”

Getting and vetting vaccines

Women are also leading by example during the pandemic when it comes to vaccinations. Champion, the nurse who became the first MUSC Health employee to get a vaccine, wanted patients to see that the shot was safe. She also thought of her three sons. “I told my kids I was getting the vaccine today, and they were really excited about mommy being the start of a new beginning.”

Kelly Warren, a manager with MUSC’s Enterprise Campaigns and University Communications, came at vaccines from a different angle. She decided to volunteer to be a participant in the MUSC/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial and shared her experiences in a series of reports.

Two mannequin heads wearing copper masks made by Coupron. 
Vaccine trial volunteer Kelly Warren chronicled her experiences, knowing she was part of history in the making.

When asked about Women’s History Month, she described her personal pandemic journey. “The past year taught me that my younger self, who loved reading stories of people living through history-making times, would be disappointed that often it sounds much cooler to live through history than it actually is,” Warren said. 

“However, a highlight of my COVID-19 experience has been participating in the AstraZeneca vaccine trial. I was largely motivated to sign up because I know vaccine approval and distribution can only happen with trials, and trials require a large number of participants. I was also impatient to receive the vaccine. However, I’d be lying to say a bit of my reasoning wasn’t also to feel like I was making history, and in this context, my childhood assumptions were spot on.”

Advocating for all

Women have also served as powerful advocates during the pandemic, speaking up to ensure that no one suffers in silence. Marvella Ford, Ph.D., a public health sciences professor, associate director of Population Sciences and Cancer Disparities with the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and leads the MUSC Black Faculty Group.

“Blacks and Hispanic/Latinx communities are disproportionately negatively impacted by COVID-19. However, the COVID-19 vaccination rates in these communities are low. A number of factors contribute to these lower rates of vaccination, including having less access to nearby COVID-19 vaccination sites and vaccine hesitancy,” Ford said.

Dr. Marvella Ford 
Dr. Marvella Ford has been working to reassure people who are wary of the vaccine.

“While MUSC continues to expand access to vaccination sites, the MUSC Black Faculty Group has published talking points, in plain language, for our faculty to share with community members. They cover the development of the two currently-used COVID-19 vaccines, by Pfizer and Moderna, and the inclusion of tens of thousands of people of color in the clinical trials that led to the vaccines' widespread use.”

Kelsey Allen, M.D., a pediatric emergency medicine fellow, focused on advocacy for kids. She noted a sharp increase in the percentage of children coming to the hospital with mental health issues and started keeping track. She found it jumped from 2.5% in November of 2019 to 12% in November of 2020. Her research, along with the observations of colleagues at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, helped raise the alarm in the community about the need for vigilance and care for kids struggling during the pandemic.

Talent for testing

Vigilance has been key in another area during the pandemic, too: the labs where technicians have carried out the painstaking process of testing samples for COVID-19. 

Dr. Julie Hirschhorn works on sequencing COVID-19 sample. 
Dr. Julie Hirschhorn works on sequencing coronavirus samples. Photo by Sarah Pack

When MUSC Health became the first hospital and medical center in South Carolina to do its own COVID-19 testing, a behind-the-scenes look showed many of the people wearing lab coats and purple safety gloves had something else in common – and that characteristic continued through the management chain.

“Our supervisors are women. Our coordinators are women. It's very impressive,” said Julie Hirschhorn, Ph.D., associate director of the molecular pathology laboratory.

Will historic era change future for women?

The female heroes of this pandemic will be remembered for taking the lead on many fronts. Unlike some of their counterparts in the 1918 pandemic, who stepped up to help and then bowed out gracefully when the crisis abated, they will continue to serve in important health care roles.

Will those roles change at all as a result of the pandemic? It’s unclear, but several of the women in this story commented on how working during the coronavirus pandemic has affected their lives. 

Salgado, the epidemiologist, said it has taken a physical and emotional toll. “Just the hours worked on this pandemic and the sacrifice in many aspects of your personal life, trying to find time while juggling all of the other needs and events is difficult.”

Dr. Cassy Salgado holds a laptop while wearing a mask during COVID-19 pandemic. 
Dr. Cassy Salgado says while working during the COVID crisis has been rewarding, it has also taken a toll.

Allen, the emergency medicine fellow who tracked kids with mental health issues, said something similar. “I feel as though the pandemic has forced a light to be shed on the division women often maintained between their work and home lives. In health care, there is an unspoken culture of ‘leaving home life at home’ that makes striking a balance between two very demanding spheres of life all the more difficult. COVID-19 forced people to abandon their offices for kitchen tables, demanded sometimes longer work hours and changed the landscape of ‘home life’ for so many.”

She hopes that will help bring about change. “Health care professionals are often granted unparalleled access to the private lives of their patients, but remain relatively anonymous themselves. During this past year, though, we’ve gotten to know our colleagues in new ways, leaned on each other for moral, professional and sometimes familial support. 

“Not much good has been wrought from the hardships of the past year, but I hope an enduring change is the acceptance that health care professionals are multifaceted people who need the same kind of support they so frequently offer their patients.”

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