Carroll, an assistant professor of anthropology at Elon, and Alcock, a frontline healthcare worker and recent Elon alum, discuss how people make sense of illness when diagnostic testing is uncertain.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on front-line healthcare workers has been profound. Recent Elon grad Hannah Alcock ’20, who majored in public health studies, knows this well. Until her recent graduation, she worked as a nurse technician and emergency medical technician in a North Carolina hospital where she witnessed the human toll of COVID-19 firsthand.
Alcock and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jennifer Carroll recently published a co-authored essay about Alcock’s experiences working with the community to assist with COVID-19 testing and diagnosis. The essay, titled “Trust and the Test: Producing Narrative Uncertainty in an Evolving Pandemic” was picked up by Somatosphere, one of the largest online forums and public magazines covering issues in medical anthropology, cultural psychiatry, psychology, and bioethics.
In the essay, Alcock and Carroll highlight what happens when the results of diagnostic testing violate the expectations of pediatric patients and their parents. In what appears to be an extraordinary deviation from the norm, parents of very sick children often left the hospital satisfied after receiving an inconclusive COVID-19 test. Other parents whose children came to the ER with non-COVID injuries like sprained ankles or broken fingers were often surprised to find that their perfectly healthy-looking child did, in fact, have COVID-19. This often led to dissatisfaction and bargaining with hospital staff about whether these results could possibly be true.
Why do parents have such strong and unexpected reactions? What makes a certain diagnosis upsetting while an uncertain diagnosis is comforting? Carroll and Alcock rely on the theoretical insights of critical medical anthropology to explain this phenomenon. Though our understanding of infectious disease is rooted in scientific data, we experience illness in ways that are personal, symbolic, and narrative. What matters, they argue, is not the results of the test, but the stories that patients are able to tell about themselves about the results they have received.
“We try to find what comfort or certainty we can by forcing the bits of knowledge we do have about the virus into the narratives we already know, the stories that already make sense,” they write, “because nothing is so deeply, psychologically unsettling as lived experience that has no coherent story.”
The essay was published as part of Somatosphere’s ongoing series “Dispatches from the Pandemic.”