Alumni in Action: Jennifer Beard G’16 on the importance of being flexible when facing the unknown

As a physician assistant, Beard remains nimble and able to adapt to ever changing circumstances.

Sometimes life takes you on a scenic route before you end up on the path that finally feels right. For Jennifer Beard G’16, she worked as a metal artist, a bartender and managed a sleep clinic before she eventually found herself at Elon training to become a physician assistant. Her experience working as a sleep technologist is what initially peaked her interest in medicine.

“Once I met medicine, I was in love,” Beard says. Working with patients in a niche field led her to want to help them even more. “After working in sleep medicine for five years I wanted to learn more about the human body and medicine and I felt compelled to not only heal patients’ sleep problems, but treat, help and support patients in all of their healthcare needs—to treat the entire person,” she explains.

Attending PA school at Elon inspired her to pursue family practice in rural, under-served areas. She has since returned to her hometown of Sanford, North Carolina, where she currently works in family practice as a PA-C. However, even with all of her varied experience and professional training in the field, nothing could have prepared her for what health care workers are facing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of the stay at home orders, patient volume overall has significantly decreased and all non-essential care is limited. Telehealth methods have ramped up and remaining flexible has been essential for Beard and her colleagues. Those who have not kept up with the changing policies and working methods have been forced to furlough and lay off employees. The current state of the medical landscape requires them to adapt and adjust daily to the latest protocols, systems and information surrounding best practices.

“Instead of mornings starting with coffee and chit-chat and smiles, we get new daily protocols, guidelines, workflows and new ways of using protective measures,” Beard says. “We have to navigate through a nebulous system of not only protecting ourselves, but our staff as well as our patients.”

Being able to pivot is something Beard is proud to excel in as a PA. She recently wrote in a Facebook post about the importance of the field: “PAs have the unique ability to move and fill gaps in the healthcare teams. We are embracing our ability to pivot from one field to another to meet the demands of this healthcare crisis. Primary care PAs are switching to telehealth and emergency roles. Surgical PAs are stepping up to the front lines of critical care. Specialists are moving into the roles, which best serve their patients. We must show how essential PAs are by taking action. Our patients deserve it.”

Jennifer Beard G’16 demonstrating the uniform that has become the new normal when meeting with patients.

Even with the daily briefings, there is still much to learn as this unpredictable virus continues to surprise the world. That stress can take its toll. As Beard describes, “It feels unsafe and exhausting, like a sense of impending doom that hovers and smothers us like the masks we wear.” Though they are there to comfort and help heal, the medical staff cannot help but feel the fear themselves as they question their every move and every precaution.

Adjusting from in person, face to face meetings has also been a sensitive challenge. Layers of masks and protective gear, and the now normalized six-foot distance rule leaves a six-foot chasm of fear and anxiety in between the patient and provider. Closely following the COVID-19 pandemic is a surge in anxiety and depression with the enormous loss of life, jobs and any sense of normalcy.

“Not only has it been hard to communicate through face shields and masks, but it has also been difficult to connect with some of our patients who are going through these rough times with increased levels of depression and anxiety,” Beard says. “It has rendered me helpless six feet across the room, expressionless, distant; with the inability to offer a hug or connection that the human race needs during times of mental anguish.”

The silver lining, as with many communities these days, is the strength found in coming together. Beard has seen perfume factories pivot to making hand sanitizers, pool and spa manufacturers pivot to make ventilators, and her own mother joined in to help sew masks for the hospital.

Until society determines a new normal, Beard will continue to take things day by day and remain flexible, willing to serve her community as best she can.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.