Experience as a Contact Tracer: Family Ties
by Rosanna Lara
Over the summer, JPHMP Direct’s “Boots on the Ground,” is running a series, “Answering the Call: A Public Health Response to COVID-19,” featuring posts from the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps in Massachusetts.
When I first arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic, I was a young 17-year-old with both dreams and doubts. I had no clear image of what I wanted to do until I was thrown into America’s healthcare system when I had my two sons. I was confused by the connections between insurance companies and hospitals. I made so many calls. It was too complex. I decided that I wanted to make it easier, especially for Spanish-speaking families like mine. I found my calling in public health.
A career in public health gives me opportunities for both community service and community advocacy. I like that public health is dedicated to the well-being of the entire population and that it is a field that is constantly evolving in response to the needs of communities and populations around the world. Public health feels like me.
My journey into public health began by enrolling at Northern Essex Community College (NECC) where I first earned a certificate as a Community Health Worker and later my associate’s degree. As I was finishing my time at NECC, COVID-19 started to threaten my local community. I felt the timing was perfect; I could volunteer and contribute to the community’s response and gain work experience at the same time.
I was assigned to four local boards of health in Massachusetts to assist with their contact tracing efforts. My job was to reach out to positive cases and everyone they were recently in contact with. I worked seven days a week making calls, each one lasting 45 minutes to an hour, from 9:00 am until at least 7:00 pm. I eventually reached out to more than 80 people.
When I was able to make contact with someone on the phone, I documented their symptoms, referred them for testing according to established protocols, and provided them with instructions for quarantine, isolation, and educational resources. I built a trusting relationship with them by starting with broader inquiries about their condition and needs: What are your symptoms? What difficulties are you having? What can we do for you?
Though there was a script to follow, I quickly found that nothing goes according plan. Everyone has his/her own problems and questions. Being empathetic to individuals’ needs, I was able to engage them in the conversation. They understood that I genuinely wanted to ensure they were safe.
One case really struck me and I decided to go beyond the typical role of a contact tracer. I called a middle-aged woman who was in intensive care when I first reached her. (Thank goodness she had her cell phone!) She did not speak English and understood even less. She lived with her husband and they were essentially alone together, with no other social support.
Each day for over a week, I called her and heard her health was improving. Finally, I got the best news — she would be discharged! On the last day I was planning to call her, however, things took a turn for the worse: her husband had been hospitalized with COVID. He was now in a coma and was on a ventilator. Because of language barriers, any communication with the hospital was futile. She believed the hospital was going to disconnect him from the oxygen machine but wasn’t sure. It didn’t sound good.
It had been a week since her last contact with the hospital, so I immediately tried to help her find information. I started to call the hospital with her on the line. We were transferred countless times to different hospital departments. I anguished over each transfer, terrified that they would give me bad news and that I would have to translate to her.
Finally, we were connected to the doctor in charge of her husband. There was a huge lump in my throat when I asked the doctor about her husband. He said that her husband was stable and improving! My heart began to beat normally, and I happily passed along the good news to her. That day there were tears of happiness: after more than a week, she learned her husband would be okay.
This experience reminded me of my mother’s experience with a hospital. When she arrived from the Dominican Republic, she complained of leg pain. I was so busy with college, work, and my family that I simply shrugged off her complaints. Eventually, I took her to the emergency department at our local hospital where we found that her leg was essentially dead from her knee to her toe because of an untreated blood disorder. Though several specialists tried their best, my mother’s leg was amputated.
During her hospitalization, I saw my mom suffer because she was not able to advocate for herself due to a language barrier — just like the woman I met while contact tracing. I could not help my mother when she was hospitalized because I did not have the knowledge then of the healthcare system, but now I can help advocate for others in my role as a contact tracer.
My Career in Public Health
Volunteering as a contact tracer was personally rewarding for me because I have a second opportunity to give my support to a family in difficult times. With my knowledge of the healthcare system, I was able to help someone who felt alone, scared, and worried. This experience has reinforced my burning desire to pursue a career in public health. My next task is to earn my bachelor’s degree in public health, and then maybe even an MPH. I want to continue my experiences in grass-roots efforts, and then become increasingly involved in policy making, so that I can deliver not just better access to better health but also greater equity within our healthcare system.
Rosanna Lara earned her Associate of Science degree in public health from Northern Essex Community College (NECC) this year but has had to delay her immediate pursuit for a Bachelor of Arts degree in public health at Regis North College to pursue her career this coming fall 2020. She was selected as NECC’s 2020 29 Who Shine Award and will be her class’s commencement speaker. She was born in the Dominican Republic, immigrated to the United States in 2005, and currently resides in Lawrence, MA, with her husband and three children.