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Healthcare Workers Discuss COVID-19 Experiences and Storytelling in Webinar

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Boston healthcare workers discussed their experiences combating COVID-19 in diverse populations at a webinar Thursday hosted by the Harvard College Medical Humanities forum.

The panelists — Massachusetts General Hospital doctor Ailis M. Tweed-Kent, Boston Medical Center doctor Katherine A. Gergen Barnett, and Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center healthcare worker Regine Watson — spoke about particular challenges people from marginalized groups face and the importance of individual storytelling.

COVID-19 transmission rates are high in Chelsea, Mass. because the population primarily comprises first-generation immigrants, many of whom have essential jobs as supermarket or construction workers, Tweed-Kent explained.

“They are on the front lines exposed without having the same voices that physicians have in terms of getting access to PPE,” she said.

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Social distancing among family members can also be difficult because many families share “one bathroom and very few bedrooms,” according to Tweed-Kent, who added that immigrants in particular may be afraid to take advantage of public services.

“The undocumented patients were afraid to to access the state initiatives like the Chelsea food bank,” she said. “They were very afraid to take advantage of these services that they were eligible for.”

Watson added that immigrants may be afraid to discuss how they contracted COVID-19 for fear of getting in trouble.

“When I speak to people who are from where I’m originally from, it makes them feel a little bit better,” Watson said.

Watson, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, added that she herself did not have a “good experience” with the virus, but she was grateful for her family. Watson also discussed the challenges she has seen others, and especially Black people, face when dealing with COVID-19.

Gergen Barnett said she thinks COVID-19 serves as a “magnifying glass” for the disparities in healthcare and said that, as a physician and educator, she finds hearing individual stories important.

“There is a lot of emotional healing that can happen by telling your story,” Gergen Barnett said. “It can bring people together and even the listener of the story feels a sense of deep engagement.”

Gergen Barnett discussed a project to collect stories about how COVID-19 affected rent, jobs, and childcare, specifically among Black and Latino people.

“We want to collate these stories and change policy,” Gergen Barnett said.

Event attendee Sahana Bail ’20, a Boston Public Schools Fellow, wrote in an email that the event showed her new ways to serve her clients better.

“Dr. Barnett’s words opened my eyes to the power of getting to know my clients on a deep level and sharing that understanding with legislators to make systemic change,” Bail said. “I couldn’t agree more that state leaders need to feel the power of my clients’ stories from both before and during this pandemic.”

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