On the front lines: ER doc, Penn State alumna manages life away from family

Susan Burlingame
May 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Teresa Dolan is on the front lines. An emergency room physician at UPMC Altoona, the Penn State alumna could never have anticipated that some 30 years after graduation she would be living alone in a hotel room, holding virtual game nights and dinners with her husband and two sons, and attending to victims of a global pandemic.

Dolan graduated from Penn State with two degrees — one in pre-medicine from the Eberly College of Science and one in political science from the College of the Liberal Arts. At first studying only pre-med, Dolan was moved to add a liberal arts degree when she lost a boyfriend to cancer.

“After he passed away, I did not immediately have it in me to pursue a medical degree,” she said. “I realized if I was going to pursue a medical career, I would never have the opportunity again to study politics and Shakespeare and Spanish and comparative literature, so I loaded up my schedule and spent an extra year to get my political science degree.”

“Having been educated in the humanities and in the liberal arts as well as in the sciences changed my perspective,” Dolan continued. “Understanding the implications of what is happening in society actually impacts what I do as a provider and impacts the patients I serve. I honestly don’t feel like we give medical students enough time to explore that kind of academic opportunity.”

Luckily for patients at UPMC Altoona — those with COVID-19 and others — Dolan continued on her original path, graduating from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Noting she was an “early learner about the pandemic,” Dolan said she is using all of her academic training in the role she plays today.

“I have always been able to take very complex information and boil it down into something less anxiety-inducing, and during the pandemic, that approach has helped me manage my relationships with patients,” she said. “I’ve been very focused on trying to make sure that people — my coworkers included — know what they need to know to be safe in this environment. I know people are suffering, and the most important thing for us to focus on is educating everyone.”

Dolan said a focus on patient education, advocacy, and engagement are the three pillars that guide her as she helps patients navigate their circumstances.

“Is their condition COVID-related? Do they have what they need? What opportunities are there to seek care after they leave the hospital? I try to assess the patients, understand why they’re really there, and try to figure out the best possible strategy going forward," she said.

“This virus is insidious,” she added. “Half or more of patients who test positive for COVID have no symptoms, but asymptomatic patients can be spreaders. Most people who are diagnosed with COVID do not wind up being critically ill, but many who develop symptoms wind up being very sick. Sadly, those who end up passing away do so without loved ones there to comfort them. Anxiety about the unknown and not being able to determine who is carrying the virus is one of the biggest obstacles I’ve seen in patients and in fellow coworkers. COVID is invisible and can be deadly. We need more tests, an effective vaccine and better therapeutic interventions or treatments. Until we are able to validly test everyone quickly and frequently, it’s our job as physicians to understand the risk and try to mitigate it as much as possible.”

Home and family deal with unexpected new reality

Before COVID-19, Dolan’s schedule allowed her to balance work life and home life between Altoona and her home in Washington, D.C. Once the pandemic hit, however, that would all change.

“Early in March, Teresa told me she probably wouldn’t be able to come home between her shifts,” said Teresa’s husband, John, an administrator in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. “I understood, but it soon became apparent to both of us that she couldn’t come home at all.”

The couple met and dated while undergraduates at Penn State. Their relationship didn’t work at first, but the two reconnected years later. John holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and a doctorate in workforce education and development from the College of Education. He also teaches through Penn State World Campus.

Explaining that she couldn’t risk being an asymptomatic carrier and bring the virus home to her family, Teresa said it has been very challenging to live apart.

“It’s been sad for me. Everyone at work and at the Hampton Inn Altoona have been wonderful, but I miss John and the boys. I FaceTime with them a lot to maintain connectedness. And what would we do without Zoom?”

“It’s not easy, but we make it work,” added John. “It’s tough to maintain a normal life under these circumstances through texts and FaceTime and Zoom, but we’re making the best of it. Sometimes we even put the laptop in her normal seat at the dining room table for a meal or a board game with her.” 

Luckily for Teresa, she said she loves her work and her co-workers. “My colleagues are like family to me.”

'What I am doing is more important than ever'

In reflecting on life during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dolan does her best to maintain a positive attitude. Her work as a physician, while always important, has taken on a more profound meaning.

“I think what I am doing is more important than ever,” she said. “The outpouring of gratitude and love to me as a provider has been overwhelming. Friends who know I’ve been working away from home have been sending me food and flowers, making masks for me. I think that because friends and family know they can’t be on the front lines, they are trying to connect with me and contribute in other ways. I am immensely grateful.”

Since making Altoona her home base in early March, Dolan managed one in-person encounter with her family. Her husband, sons, dogs, and the girlfriend of one of her sons drove from Washington, D.C., to Altoona.

“We got takeout, and we lined up five tables in the lobby of the Hampton Inn,” said Teresa. “We wiped down everything, ate our dinner, and played board games. I was about I was about 10 feet away from the rest of the family and had a mask on the entire time. It wasn’t enough, but it was good to be in the same room with them. Also, John and the boys were down to their last two rolls of toilet paper. I had toilet paper, and they had a box of N95 masks for me, so we did a swap.”

Dolan has a longer break from emergency-room duty coming up and said she will make a visit home. Their house in Washington, D.C., has a separate living space with its own kitchen and bath.

“I’ll still wear a mask and keep my distance, but it will be nice to be home.”

What’s the first thing she will do once restrictions are officially lifted?

“So many hugs for so many people,” she said. “I miss seeing people smile, so I think I will just take the mask off and smile.”

"We Are" stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories.

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by novel coronavirus. We are!

  • DolanPennStatemask

    Penn State alumna Teresa Dolan, MD, dons a Penn State mask while serving as an ER physician at UPMC Altoona.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Teresa Dolan

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 13, 2020