Instead of donning the traditional crisp, white lab coat and squeaky purple gloves to perform laboratory-based research, Mallory Thompson wears a medical gown, N95 respirator and face shield to collect a research sample from a COVID-19 patient at the Banner University Medical Center. She’s alone in a room with the patient who is fully aware and appears to be having difficulty breathing through her ventilator.
Fully intubated, the Spanish-speaking woman tries, but fails, to communicate with Thompson. She motions for a pen and something to write on, but Thompson is unable to find any in the room. Noticing the patient is struggling with her breathing device, Thompson draws upon her basic Spanish conversational skills to ask the woman simple questions she can answer with nods or finger, like how many children she has, to calm her until the nurse can be summoned.
When the nurse returns to the room, he finds the patient’s ventilator to be clogged, impairing her breathing. Realizing the patient is getting quite nervous and without the physical support of her family members, Thompson takes hold of the woman’s hand.
“I held her hand because I couldn’t imagine going through that all alone during such a scary time,” she said. “If I was her, I would want someone to hold my hand.”
Thompson, a cellular and molecular medicine master’s student and research assistant for Dr. Craig Weinkauf, assistant professor of surgery in the College of Medicine - Tucson, is experiencing unexpected situations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic that have enabled her to grow as a budding medical professional.
Originally from Southern California, Thompson holds a Bachelor of Science degree in human physiology from Boston University and dreams of being a doctor. Despite feeling pressure to apply to medical school immediately after graduating college in 2017, Thompson decided to pursue higher-level science courses and gain more experience in clinical research before submitting her applications.
As a first-year master’s student at UArizona in 2019, Thompson joined Dr. Weinkauf in the Division of Vascular Surgery. She was initially responsible for enrolling patients in a non-invasive imaging study aimed at understanding blood perfusion to the feet of diabetic patients. Though she was only tasked with signing patients up to participate, Dr. Weinkauf encouraged her to understand the disease and the research process. He challenged her to think critically about the underpinnings of the disease and to develop her own research questions.
“He’s been a great mentor,” Thompson said. “He’s really pushed me to make the research my own. I hope as a future physician that I take that with me and ask my own questions, with my own study, in my own practice.”
As the university began to shut down in March due to COVID-19, Thompson expected to pause her in-person research and transition to refining research study protocols at home. Recognizing both the dire need for COVID-19 research and the opportunity to train a young scientist and future physician during a pandemic, Dr. Weinkauf seized the moment and created a project that Thompson could help lead.
According to the student, Thompson’s current role on the front lines of clinical COVID-19 research is a “part of history.” She obtains consent from COVID-19-positive patients in the intensive care and observation units to provide her with nasal swabs or blood samples for research purposes including determining the susceptibility of certain populations like the elderly to infection. Many of the patients Thompson interacts with are heavily sedated, unable to communicate because of their breathing devices and lack the physical presence of their family members.
“The reality of the pandemic doesn’t hit you until you see a bunch of patients on ventilators,” she said.
Thompson hand-delivers the samples to the UArizona Human Tissue and Specimen BioBank where university researchers like Dr. Janko Nikolich-Žugich, department head and professor of immunobiology and member of the BIO5 Institute, utilize the samples for projects that address the prevention, testing and treatment of COVID-19.
Dr. Weinkauf, Thompson’s primary mentor, shares a Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF)-enabled BIO5 COVID-19 seed grant with Dr. Nikolich-Žugich and immunobiology associate professor Deepta Bhattacharya. Because the novel coronavirus is highly infectious in older adults and those with pre-existing critical health conditions, the team is utilizing patient samples to determine the links between these populations and COVID-19 susceptibility.
“Mallory was an ideal partner for our efforts to collect blood samples from subjects with COVID-19. Her timely assistance critically enabled us to validate our UArizona antibody assay that is now used statewide for first responder and health care worker testing. In addition to assisting Dr. Weinkauf, she helped us with all the aspects of human subject work and provided materials to begin our research into what determines vulnerability to COVID-19 in older adults. She was always available, always helpful and always enthusiastic, even under the very difficult conditions of working under risk-filled conditions. We are extremely grateful to have her as part of our team,” Dr. Nikolich-Žugich said.
Thompson, who is currently applying to medical schools across the country including UArizona, says her research experience has reinforced her passion for pursuing medicine. The patients she has worked with in a research capacity – many of whom are alone in critical care due to the restrictions of a pandemic – have taught her that research and medicine are about more than simply collecting samples and attending to patients. The woman struggling to communicate while on her ventilator and so many others have helped to more clearly define her pursuit of a holistic medicine approach in which she will care for the mind, body and spirit of each patient with compassion and empathy.
“Yes, medicine is being able to treat the disease a patient has, but you have to be there for that person, too, on the emotional side,” she said.