ER doctor from Eastern Niagara Hospital earns Unsung Heroes recognition, discusses ‘scary’ early days of COVID-19 days when she was afraid to go to work: ‘I didn’t know if I was going to come home with a deadly disease’
Q: You’ve recently received an Unsung Heroes recognition for your work in the emergency department at Eastern Niagara Hospital.
A: My group, UBMD Emergency Medicine, has been working at Eastern Niagara now since 2019. The Unsung Hero award, quite honestly, is something all the physicians in our group deserve. We all work very hard in the emergency department. It’s a great, small community hospital and it serves a patient population that, maybe isn’t underserved, but we cover a lot of area. So, I think any one of us could have gotten that award. But I was certainly happy that my director nominated me for it. I teach first-year medical students the clinical application of medicine. So we go over history-taking skills and physical exam skills. So that’s something that I do outside of my clinical practice that was recognized. I believe my director also talked about me being an educator in the emergency department, particularly around the COVID-19 vaccines. There was so much misinformation being spread about the vaccinations, especially in the community that Eastern Niagara serves. So I felt as though, as physician, it was my responsibility to give the patients who came in accurate information about the vaccines.
Q: How did you go about it?
A: So when they were being rolled out a few years, I’d ask my patients if they were vaccinated and, if they weren’t, we’d have a non judgmental conversation about their reasoning for not being vaccinated. I would try to give them evidence-based information regarding the vaccines so that they could make the decision that was best for them. So that was one of the things my director mentioned in the submission.
Q: What concerns did patients have?
A: I heard everything from it was a Bill Gates conspiracy to control the world to more general fear of a new medical technology. So there were both crazy conspiracies and general fear about being a guinea pig and wanting to be sure they were doing what was right for them. As far as the conspiracies, I tried to dispel them but unfortunately, when you’re dealing with someone who believes something that’s really far out there, it’s a lot harder to educate them about scientifically sound information, because they just don’t want to hear. But for patients who were just nervous and unsure, it was answering questions they might have, say, about the effects on young women and fertility, to side effects, to long-term potential effects. So hopefully that information was able to turn some of them around and realize it was a beneficial thing for all of us.
Q: What were the COVID-19 years like in your department?
A: Well, I have to say in the beginning it was really hard and really scary. Really scary. I have been practicing emergency medicine since the 1990s and never had I experienced anything like this where there was this novel virus that nobody knew anything about. And we’d just see patient after patient coming in severely ill and so many patients dying. We didn’t have treatments, we didn’t have vaccines. It was the first time in my career that I was afraid to go to work because I didn’t know if I’d catch it and bring it home to my family. My husband was in the Navy and I’d tell him I felt like I was on the battlefield. I didn’t know if I was going to come home with a deadly disease. At first it was really, really scary. I moved myself out of my bedroom and planted myself on the third floor of my house and tried to stay away from my family. But it got much better. As we learned more about the virus and after the vaccines came out, it was a like a medical miracle. And it completely lifted a weight off all of our shoulders. We could go in and take care of our patients without being afraid anymore. So it was tough, but we got through it. We did our best. We served our patients. I think we’re all much more comfortable now.
Q: How are things now? Back to normal? Halfway back to normal? Or is there no normal anymore?
A: I would say we’re 90% back to normal. We’re still wearing masks in the emergency department, but honestly we’re having a flu season, so maybe we should have worn them before. Now I’m not advocating people wear masks out in the community all the time, but in the emergency room where we’re taking care of sick patients all the time, it’s not a terrible idea. Most people are either vaccinated or have natural immunity, so we’re not seeing as many really sick patients with COVID-19. We’re not seeing as many patients dying from it.
Q: You’re on the medical school admissions committee for selecting candidates. What’s that like?
A: Basically I’m on the screening committee, so we screen applications and decide who is granted an interview. And I’m also on the interview committee where we interview potential candidates. Each candidate gets two interviews. Then, on the selection day, we go over each candidate as a group and share our feelings on them and decide if they’d be a good addition to our medical school class.
Q: What traits do you consider most important in an applicant?
A: I would definitely say empathy and compassion. Doctors are going to be intelligent; all the candidates we screen have done well in college, on their MCATS. They all meet the intellectual standards. But what makes a good physician is someone who can take all of that information, apply it to their patient and explain it in a compassionate, empathetic manner. So many times you have to deliver bad news. What really, I think, makes an excellent physician is someone who can deliver that in a way that makes a patient feel comfortable and cared for.
Name: Michelle Rainville
Position: Emergency medicine physician with UBMD
Education: SUNY Upstate Medical University
Affiliations: Eastern Niagara Hospital; Mount St. Mary’s Hospital; DeGraff Medical Center; Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital
Organizations: American Academy Emergency Medicine; American College of Emergency Physicians
Family: Husband, three children
Hobbies: Running, skiing, mountain biking, yoga