IT’S LIKE BUILDING THE PLANE WHILE you’re flying it, says Dr. Tarik Asmerom ’01. As an emergency room physician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, she says the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed medical personnel to the brink.
“I think there is a good amount of burnout,” she says. “We’re going on two years of this, and there’s only so much pandemic anyone can tolerate. There’s significant burnout, but we continue to be present for our patients.”
As the science evolves on treating COVID patients, treatments change as well, forcing medical personnel to adapt to changes that seem to happen daily, she notes.
“We know a lot more about COVID than we did back in March,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot more pediatric patients now” who are suffering from a dual problem: COVID and RSV, a respiratory virus that ordinarily affects infants. The dual whammy means sicker children, she notes. “It’s quite intense in the pediatric hospitals, because both are happening at the same time.”
She and her colleagues at the hospital have been frustrated by vaccine refusal and the politicization of science and medicine. Those who are unvaccinated are showing up in greater numbers due to the Delta variant.
“The medical community thought this [vaccine] was our way out and that science had saved us,” she says. “It’s just disheartening, it really is. You’re trying to hold on to your zeal for medicine and your love of people, but…you feel like that’s being thrown in your face. As far as mandates are concerned, that’s a political question not a medical one. Professionally, I recommend the vaccine to essentially everyone who qualifies.”
Her choice of practice has always focused on those needing help.
“I work in the emergency room where we treat all patients: children, elderly, pregnant, all ages and genders. I did my training at a county hospital, which acts as a safety net for underinsured, uninsured, undocumented, county jail patients, and everyone else who is in need of help. I also previously worked at the Indian Health Service in Navajo Nation,” she says. “In short, it’s about service, about being present for people in their most vulnerable [situations].”
As an assistant professor who works with Baylor College of Medicine, Asmerom teaches at the patient’s bedside. “Being a teacher for six years prior to going into medicine made me already acclimated to the triad of parent, child, and provider— educator or doctor—so focusing myself on pediatric care was a smooth transition,” she says. “I have to really commend the residents and medical students I’ve worked with. I find that...they’re still very much dedicated to what they signed up for. They’re present for all the changes and working through the challenges on behalf of our patients.”
Asmerom also holds an administrative position where she is helping to liaise an endeavor to make Texas Children’s Hospital a home institution for patients born with congenital heart disease who are now living decades into adulthood. “We want these adult-aged patients to have [care from] physicians trained in general emergency medicine and adult congenital heart disease to manage their specific needs all in one place,” she says.
To release the stresses that build daily, Asmerom has developed a passion for fitness, specifically weightlifting.
“I’m a petite person, so I’m lifting weights. I’m working on building muscle mass—I even got a trainer,” she says. “I need to focus on myself—my trainer brings me so much happiness—that’s been a source of happiness for me. I am protecting myself and my light. I also purposely avoid media; I sometimes unplug from what’s going on politically and what’s going on generally to give myself a break. I surround myself with positive people.”
Those people include the doctors with whom she worked during her residency and those she works with daily at Texas Children’s Hospital.
“My coworkers understand…the day to day, and that’s been paramount,” she says. “Just being able to talk to your colleagues about what’s going on, feeling like you have other comrades you can relate to who can take a negative situation and make light humor out of it and let off some steam.”
Taft classmates may remember that Asmerom was the first female student of color elected to the head monitor position her senior year at Taft, in 2001. The early lessons of leadership she gained in that position have helped her throughout her career, she says.
“I’m so profoundly grateful for my entire Taft experience,” she says. “I appreciate the level of trust we were given at Taft. As a student, your vote counts as much as [the administration’s and faculty’s]. I was a young African American woman at Taft and trying to find my voice. [I learned to] believe in [myself] as a leader, a changemaker. Someone who has impact. Honestly, I was very shy, and as I look back, I was very grateful for that space and that level of trust I was given.”
—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84