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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

ChBE alumni on the frontlines of COVID-19: Ashley Yeager

Dr. Ashley Yeager

Ashley Yeager received her PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2016, followed by an MD from the University of Illinois College of Medicine. She is currently a Resident Physician completing an intern year at a Michigan hospital. She will continue her training as a Resident Physician at UCLA in the Department of Radiology in Summer 2020.

In mid-April, she took time out of her day to respond to a few questions from ChBE.

What’s the situation like where you are? How is it evolving? What’s your role in diagnosing or treating people?

Yeager: As a resident physician intern, I am at the frontline of the novel coronavirus outbreak. I provide direct physician-care to patients primarily in the inpatient and critical care settings. Like most hospitals in coronavirus-positive communities, we have seen a dramatic increase in patients with the virus and our hospital staff has been working tirelessly to accommodate this uptick. Changes occur nearly everyday and the hospital has been swift to adapt to the quickly-evolving coronavirus crisis.

What is it like to be a physician during this unprecedented time?

Yeager: Being a physician, even during non-pandemic times, can be challenging and overwhelming. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, like all physicians, I spent many sleepless nights worrying about my sickest patients, their dwindling treatment options, and the inevitable difficult conversations with patient and family about their prognosis. The coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping hospitals only amplifies these fears. Before, I might have had one or two extremely sick patients every few weeks that I knew would be transferring to the intensive care unit; now, I worry about this possibility with nearly every patient I have seen.

For me, the most challenging aspects of being on the frontline are the anxiety and fear surrounding the unknowns of the pandemic. When will the coronavirus patients admissions finally slow? When will Michigan see its peak and eventual decline to more manageable patient counts? Will the peak outpace hospital capacity? It’s important for everyone to remember to take each day one at a time. I am so thankful for my physician mentors who have weathered many storms and provide a sense of calm to the younger doctors, such as myself, who are just starting their careers. Training to become an autonomous physician in normal times is difficult.

What are your concerns as a medical provider now and what are you optimistic about in terms of testing, treatments, and the possibility of vaccines?

Yeager: Many aspects of this novel coronavirus, its pathology and the epidemiology at play remain largely unknown. Every day I see research coming out with new information on the virus, promising antivirals, and real progress toward a vaccine. I’m very optimistic about what the researching community will discover. I think we are going to see incredible innovation in the next weeks to months that will provide meaningful benefits to patients with this virus. I think it’s impossible for any researcher to accurately predict when this pandemic will eventually fade and communities can get back to normal life, however, I’m optimistic about a vaccine. The future outlook for the coronavirus pandemic lies with the advancements that will be pioneered by the scientific community.

Any message you’d like to share to fellow alumni?

Yeager: I would stress to everyone to listen to their doctors regarding health decisions, continue to practice social distancing as much as possible, and look for reliable information about the coronavirus from well-informed sources. Being at home, bored, and feeling like nothing is really happening and everyone around you is staying healthy is the goal of this self-quarantine – please know that you are helping the nurses and doctors at the frontlines immensely. 

How has your education in med school or in chemical engineering prepared you for this time?

Yeager: I completed my engineering PhD research on the influenza virus in the wake of the 2009 H1N1 crisis and was witness to all the amazing new discoveries and innovations that blossomed following that pandemic. I believe the problem-solving skills I have as an engineer and the tools I acquired as a researcher during my graduate days place me in a unique position for patient care when thinking “on-your-feet” is pivotal to patient outcomes.

In a time of a fast-moving global pandemic, research articles come out nearly every hour of the day. Having the know-how and training to find and sift through these articles for useful data is critical to providing the most up-to-date best-of-care practice. I know these experiences and training will confer a significant advantage that I will be able to leverage into my personal clinical practice. 

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