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Department of Medicine critical care physician assistant wins narrative story competition

Susan Thurman, a critical care physician assistant within Penn State College of Medicine‘s Department of Medicine, recently took first place in a research, abstracts and story competition for her personal narrative about patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The competition was organized by the South Central PA chapter of the Society of Hospital Medicine, a national organization that promotes exceptional care for hospitalized patients. Thurman’s winning entry was part of the AP Story Competition. Other categories included podium presentations and case report posters.

Her narrative, titled “The Race,” focuses on one seemingly simple item: a pair of shoes.

“It is based on my own sneakers,” Thurman said. “Like a lot of us who took/take care of COVID-19 patients, I wore the same pair of shoes every day and did not wear them home. After my very first COVID-19 shift at Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center in mid-March 2020, I told myself that I would wear the same sneakers until we no longer had COVID-19 patients.”

Thurman continued to wear those same shoes until June 14, 2021, when the Department’s Hospital Medicine care team at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center did not have any COVID-19 inpatients on their service for the first time in months.

Although the number of COVID-19 patients went back up again and still continues to fluctuate, it was a memorable moment that prompted Thurman to document her experience in writing.

“I really did it as a way to put my feelings and experiences with COVID-19 into words,” she said. “It was helpful to do, competition or not. … Within it, I made reference to three patients that most touched me.”

Read Thurman’s first-place submission below.


“The Race”

March 13, 2020

Today, I lace up my running shoes because, instinctively, I know this is the shotgun start to a race. Some say it will be a sprint, others a marathon. Regardless, it will be a race for which we have not prepared and a race that some will not complete. Along the way, there will be moments of suffering and sorrow, resilience and strength. There will be faces — men and women, old and young, and a rainbow of colors. There will be a sister and brother, running side by side, until one stumbles and the other falls. There will be a World War II warrior, bravely running on his own after a century of sacrificing so much. And there will be the faceless — those masked in hope and heroism with shielded eyes focused on victory and cloaked in plastic armor.

And the course? The course will be curvy, though we will try to find a flatter path, with unpredictable up hills and too few downhills. We will ascend to elevations not thought possible — for many of us, this is our Everest. The terrain will be rough, rocky, and very muddy and we will need to blaze our own trail. After all, that is what makes this race so difficult — we know where we want to go but have no map to guide us in the right direction. What we do have are cheerleaders — husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters — all rooting for us to win and giving us the strength to keep going. And we will, because the adage “quitting is not an option” has never been more true. To this race, we will bring our own light because this race is run in darkness. Until that day, that amazing day, when a shot of inspiration illuminates the way forward and the finish line which has thus far been elusive.

June 14, 2021

Today, my race is over. The overwhelming sense of relief brings tears to my eyes as I celebrate with my running mates. While we ran as individuals, we found each other over the length of our journey and our collective effort is what led to our accomplishment. Yet the win is bitter sweet. Because I cannot foresee the day when images of the carnage left along the side of the trail will ever leave my memory. They are ever-present reminders of why I run. Though I am tired, scarred, and my feet bloody and blistered, tomorrow is the start of the next race. And I will need a new pair of running shoes.

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