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Collegiality in the Age of COVID

November 09, 2021
by Jane E. Dee

How do you boost morale during a pandemic?

None of us wanted to experience a pandemic, and most people are hoping the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to an end. But some important things about our lives became clearer during lockdown. For many people, a desire to socialize with friends, family, and colleagues was one of them.

Marie Frank’s role as senior administrative assistant for the Section of Rheumatology, Allergy & Immunology in the Department of Internal Medicine at Yale School of Medicine does not specify “morale boosting.” But Frank felt strongly during the early weeks of the pandemic that her colleagues wanted to see each other, and she was determined to make that happen.

“People started to feel in a rut, to feel down and isolated,” Frank said. “I think many people had the same feeling at the same time -- we wanted to talk to each other.” After a month of being apart, in April 2020, she decided to organize monthly Zoom events for her colleagues, starting with social hours. Soon, those gathering turned into themed events.

“On Halloween, we had a dress-up in costumes, and everybody got together on Zoom and talked,” she said. At Christmastime, Frank organized a cookie swap, with prizes for everyone who participated. “We baked at our own houses, and shared our recipes,” she said. Participants also dropped off cookies, individually wrapped, so rheumatology’s fellows could judge the contest, choosing winners in three categories and one overall winner. A cookie trophy was the top prize.

The section’s faculty are used to taking care of other people. Knowing that someone was thinking of them was meaningful. “Marie took it upon herself to bring us together during the pandemic, and she injected enthusiasm and playfulness into these events,” said Vaidehi Chowdhary, MD, the section’s clinical chief. “This was October 2020, and everyone was nervous when COVID cases started to increase. Marie was able to get people excited during a year that was pretty depressing,” Chowdhary said.

The events continued in 2021. “When cases started to decrease in the spring, and some restrictions were lifted, and it got warmer out, we were able to get together in person,” Frank said. She organized walking events, first at East Rock Park in New Haven, with everyone masked, later for a boardwalk beach walk at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, unmasked.

“I still remember the feeling of being together,” Chowdhary said. “There was no other place in the past year where we could come together -- staff, fellows, scientists, and faculty -- and we had kids there, too.”

These events had another benefit – they helped to bring a far-flung section that has offices in Old Saybrook, New Haven and North Haven, a little closer together, Chowdhary said.

The cookie challenge is on again for 2021. But first, a campus walk is planned for November, led by Section Chief Richard Bucala, MD, PhD, a graduate of Yale. “Our fellows joined us during the pandemic, when we couldn’t celebrate their arrival in person,” Bucala said. “The idea for the walk is to introduce them to Yale, and tell them a little about the university’s history,” he added.

Pandemic or no pandemic, people need to stay connected. Frank said she expects the events will continue even as people are able to interact more freely.

“I'm sure we'll do another cookie swap, and more walks in the future,” she said.

The Section of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology is dedicated to providing care for patients with rheumatic, allergic and immunologic disorders; educating future generations of thought leaders in the field; and conducting research into fundamental questions of autoimmunity and immunology. To learn more about their work, visit Rheumatology, Allergy & Immunology.

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on November 09, 2021