Us, Interrupted: How Uché Blackstock, MD, Is Taking Care Of Herself While Caring For Others

Epidemiologist and writer By Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D.
Epidemiologist and writer
Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D., M.H.S., C.P.H., is an epidemiologist, physician, and writer. Kalaichandran graduated from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a master's in Health Science, received her M.D. from the University of Toronto, and completed fellowships at the University of Arizona and the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Ulché Blackstock on mindbodygreen

Image by mbg Creative x Alaric Campbell / Contributor

Us, Interrupted is a series that focuses on public figures as well as professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 global pandemic. During this unprecedented crisis, we hope these stories of vulnerability and resilience will help us move forward, stronger together.

Uché Blackstock, M.D., is busy. She is the mother of two small children, the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, and an emergency medicine physician working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.

We spoke to Blackstock about a life working in medicine during the pandemic, and how she's balancing caring for herself, her children, and her patients during these unprecedented times.

What was your life like before we learned about COVID-19, in terms of your self-care and maintaining a sense of well-being in and out of the hospital?

To be honest, it's hard to remember what life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic hit NYC. I've been immersed in the crisis for the last two weeks caring for patients in urgent care clinics in central Brooklyn. As a parent, practicing physician, and the CEO of my own consulting firm, I'll admit that finding the time for self-care has been quite challenging for me. I try to eat healthy and to maintain a healthy exercise schedule. Before COVID19, I took up journaling, especially in the evenings to decompress before I fell asleep. I also consider self-care to be maintaining my connections with my loved ones and friends, so I try to be intentional about finding meaningful time to spend with them.

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Before COVID-19, what did you most struggle with in terms of self-care?

Once I had my first child, over five years ago, and even more recently with starting my own business, it became increasingly difficult to find time for self-care. Often, I've had to schedule in pampering or meditation or meetups with girlfriends to ensure it all happens, but at least I know that it has to happen. If I'm not healthy and fulfilled, how can I be a good parent or physician? 

If you can remember, where were you when you first learned about COVID-19 as being a real threat to us in North America? What were your initial impressions?

Like most people, when I first heard about COVID-19 I wasn't as scared as I am now since I've seen the carnage here in NYC. Wuhan province was thousands of miles away from NYC, and I honestly did not perceive COVID-19 as a real threat, like so many people. It wasn't until my workplace started requiring us to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) that I recognized the situation was more serious than I had ever imagined. Then finally, I started seeing very sick patients in urgent care, which is an environment where patients receive care for non-acute medical problems; it finally hit me that we were in trouble.

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What has your experience been like on the front lines generally?

I feel both privileged and terrified to be working on the frontlines of this pandemic. I've always loved the service aspect of being a physician. In a way, it's empowering to be able to help others during this crisis, but at the same time, I'll admit I'm scared of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home to my family. Despite wearing full PPE, there is always a risk. I'm also terrified seeing how this disease has already ravaged our patients and their lives.

What sorts of things have you put into practice now, from a "public health" point of view to help lower the risk of COVID-19?

On a micro-level, I'm making sure to use universal precautions at home and at work. As I mentioned at work, I wear full PPE, but I'm also washing my hands and using hand sanitizer almost obsessively. Even at work, we've been asked to try to physically distance ourselves from other staff since my co-workers could be the ones who transmit the virus to me. On a broader level, I've been utilizing my social media presence to advocate for the public to stay in their homes and stay safe, as well as to organize for more PPE for my fellow health care workers.

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How has being on the front lines affected your sense of well-being—this includes physically, emotionally, and your relationships? What have you most struggled with during this time?

I've been shaken to the core by the last few weeks, not only professionally but personally. Like many, this pandemic has affected every aspect of my life, from being a parent to being a physician to running my own business. The most challenging job has been to stay calm and present for my two small children. They are too young to know exactly what is happening, and I'm almost glad because they would otherwise be frightened. For now they are blissfully ignorant, and that comforts my soul.

Do you have any ideas, resources, tips, tricks, or advice that you've put into practice to optimize your well-being and that might help other health care professionals?

During challenging times, reaching out and connecting with the folks in my village is crucial. I've found it quite comforting to speak with my health care colleagues about our clinical experiences so I don't feel alone, and I've also enjoyed the new virtual happy hours that I've organized with my closest girlfriends. We cannot go through crises alone, including this pandemic.

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What have you learned most about yourself (and your family, if you choose to share) during this time? How do you believe you have grown/will grow through this? How will the health care system improve after this?

At 19 years old, my mother died, and I thought I would never be able to go on, but I found the inner strength to continue. Looking back on that dark time, I would've never believed that I would one day be happy again, but it eventually happened. I was stronger and tougher than I realized. This is not to say that many of us will not need even more therapy and support after this, but we will "survive." As for our health care system, there are a tremendous number of lessons learned including how lack of preparedness and an uncoordinated health care system has let our patients down. I also hope this will be a call to action for front line health care workers to become more involved in health care policymaking.

Any piece of advice, a quote, anything motivational that you'd like to share for our readers?

The piece of advice I would like to share and that my own sister reminds me of is "one day at a time." To think about what's going to happen to me and my patients in the next few weeks is absolutely overwhelming. For now, it's all about getting through each day and coming out as unscathed as possible.

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What makes you most hopeful right now?

Right now, seeing my children play and laugh together makes me feel most hopeful. 

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