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//Chief Medical Resident Dr. Sneha Shah stands inside the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Jan. 18. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

As we pause to reflect on the life and legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., we are reminded of a question he often posed in his speeches: “What are you doing for others?”

Dr. Sneha Shah has dedicated her life to others, a commitment especially exhibited this past year. 

Shah, an immigrant from India, says she always found comfort in math and science. But only when she moved to the United States as a teenager with her family and later attended Marquette University in Wisconsin did her love for healthcare emerge.

“Becoming a physician felt really right. My focus can be on my patients, and I can channel my energy into helping those that need it,” Shah said. 

That love of helping others put her at the center of a pandemic when COVID-19 struck the United States. Shah’s Internal Medicine residency graduation ceremony at the University of Colorado was canceled while she was catapulted onto the pandemic’s frontlines, working 80 hours a week at the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

And when Shah found herself in need of a lift from the stress of her new position as a Chief Medical Resident, strangers were there to answer the call and step in under a sponsorship program, known as Project Lift

“It was this adrenaline excitement to care for people and to keep the community safe and at the same time sacrifice personal events [like graduation] for the greater good,” Shah said.

As COVID-19 cases surged during the summer, Shah was part of a team heading up a new Intensive Care Unit exclusively dedicated to patients with the disease.  

“This is really tough to talk about,” Shah said. “There are a couple of distinct times where I remember I was talking to my patient from outside the room, and the patient said, ‘I’m going to call my family and let them know that I love them before you guys put this breathing tube in because I don’t know if I’m going to wake up.’ I had a lot of those conversations with patients.”

In the past year, healthcare workers have paid a steep price in the fight against COVID-19. And some have lost that fight. According to recent data collected by the Centers for Disease Control, there have been more than 350,000 cases of COVID-19 in healthcare workers and more than 1,200 deaths. This report comes at a time where hospitals are still tight on personal protection equipment and more than 1,000 facilities are critically short on staff 

Shah believes many more lives could have been saved from COVID-19 in the U.S. if appropriate steps had been taken.

“I think had we taken drastic measures back in the spring and summer, we could have curtailed the pandemic and would have been essentially coming out of it by now. These ebbs and flows and waves that we’re seeing are a result of just inadequate action,” Shah said. 

Discouraged by the federal government’s response to COVID-19 and exhausted by the daily grind of such grave conditions, Shah, like many others in her position, needed some support. Mental Health America conducted a survey of healthcare workers in 2020 and found that 80% reported feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, and 76% were extremely worried about exposing others.

“When I heard about Project Lift, I knew that it would be a really nice way to have somebody take care of me for a little bit since I’m out here alone and I don’t have family nearby,” Shah said.

Born out of COVID-19, Project Lift is the brain-child of Dr. Alison Brainard, Kara Penn, Chrissie Butz and Chelsea Smith. The women all have ties to the Denver medical community and immediately recognized the support Colorado doctors in training needed.  

“When COVID-19 first began, everyone was feeling unprotected and scared, especially residents. And we really wanted to let them know that they have support from their community,” Smith said. 

Since Project Lift’s start in March 2020, nearly 100 medical residents have been paired with sponsors committed to lifting their spirits in various ways.

“In the applications from residents, a lot of them were saying that it was so incredibly disheartening to go into work and do these horrible 10-12 hour shifts where they were seeing so many sick people, and then driving home from work and seeing people at bars and out with friends. It was really depressing for them. They felt like they were in it alone,” Smith said.  

Shah was paired with a sponsor who knows what it’s like to be in her shoes. She echoed the same sentiments surrounding the national handling of COVID-19.  

“I have been incredibly disappointed on a national scale. The lack of people being able to rally around truth and science and teamwork, that’s been very disappointing to me,” said Dr. Danielle Sorrano of Children’s Hospital Colorado. “When I was a resident, you [could] barely get to the grocery store or the bank, and so having the added weight of a pandemic and all the uncertainty and anxiety, trying to help them seemed like a nice opportunity to feel like I was making a difference.”  

Sorrano thought the best way to support Shah was by tapping into her Italian roots and cooking up some comfort food. She took a day off from work, fired up the oven and called on her mom to hand-sew masks. At the time, personal protective equipment wasn’t a guarantee for healthcare workers, and today at times, still isn’t. 

“She came over with fresh flowers, freshly baked bread, face masks, candles, chocolates and a ton of Italian food. She just went above and beyond. I have never felt like somebody cared about me more and she didn’t even know me,” Shah said. 

 

If you’re interested in becoming a Project Lift sponsor, click here.

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