What I’ve Learned: Tricia Heaslip, PA-C at Stroger Hospital

Tricia Heaslip
Tricia Heaslip, 25, wearing her personal protective equipment while treating COVID-19 patients at Stroger hospital.

By Ruby Thompson
Medill Reports

As an early-career physician assistant specializing in infectious disease, Tricia Heaslip, 25, has spent the last six weeks treating COVID-19 patients at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital.

In my department we do a lot of HIV work, and HIV has just changed so much in the last 20 years — the treatment of it and the diagnosis of it and how long those people can live. All of the doctors I work with were treating HIV in the 1980s and in the 1990s, when it was this novel disease, we didn’t have treatments for it, and their patients were dying. It was just a terrible thing to treat and do. But that’s what they were doing. So, I find the people that work there are really inspiring.

I think one of the things that’s been the most challenging about coronavirus is seeing how it affects my boss. She is someone who I admire and look up to. She’s a badass. She started her career in the late ‘80s working with HIV patients, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how brave she must feel taking on this pandemic. But the other day, she said she went home and cried all night, and to hear her say that was such a shock to me. To see my colleagues feel helpless, scared or sad… they’ve seen so much worse, and this is scaring them.

Right before all of this happened, I was wondering, what’s the next step? Could I learn a little bit more? I really like being busy, I really like learning and I felt like the amount that I was learning was starting to slow down. Then this outbreak happened and now I have so much to learn.

But now, I’ve learned that you are capable of so much more when you’re challenged with something. If you don’t have to do it, you might never do it. But when you have no choice, then you’ll figure it out. When the pandemic started, I had to just go do it. Although I’m used to always having a ton of support, everybody’s really busy and overwhelmed and stressed. I couldn’t just call somebody for backup because the person I’d be calling also has their plate full.

I’m learning a lot about minority communities that are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. It speaks to a larger problem in this country with health care and access to health care and living conditions. Why are there higher rates of asthma in black communities, why are there higher rates of diabetes in black communities? Those are bigger issues that existed well before COVID-19. Those are the patients that I’m treating, and seeing this happen has been the thing that has reaffirmed my desire to work with the types of communities that I work with now. I couldn’t really picture myself leaving county because I know that these are the types of patients I want to care for.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Tricia Heaslip, 25, wears her personal protective equipment while treating COVID-19 patients at Stroger Hospital. (Ruby Thompson/MEDILL)