For years, Ana Palacio, M.D., M.P.H., has kept a journal, documenting the fleeting thoughts about improving health care that come to her while seeing patients at the Miami VA Medical Center. But assuming that what she had to say was of little consequence, the Miller School of Medicine professor never shared her personal insights.
Today, the Ecuadorean-raised internist realizes she undervalued both her eloquence in English and her expertise in recognizing the links between COVID-19 and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a connection she wrote about during The OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship that she and 23 other University of Miami faculty members recently completed. Brought to the University by John Bixby, Ph.D., the former vice provost for research, the national initiative aims to increase the influence of women and other underrepresented thinkers in the public discourse — and it clearly succeeded in elevating Dr. Palacio’s voice.
Her two commentaries about how research on COVID-19 can help fight ME/CFS not only validated her extensive knowledge about the complex, disabling, and often undiagnosed chronic illness, but led to new research opportunities that could make a difference in the lives of thousands of people suffering from ME/CFS or the constellation of chronic fatigue-like symptoms plaguing an increasing number of COVID-19 survivors.
“It was truly a life-changing experience for me,” Dr. Palacio said of the one-year fellowship, which included interactive seminars, one-on-one coaching with experienced writers/editors, and calls with media insiders. “Not only because I learned to value my thoughts, but because I gained the confidence to share them. It showed me the worst that can happen is that nobody reads what I write, and the best that can happen is that you can make a difference.”
High-profile, high-exposure publications
Despite the pandemic, the University’s Public Voices fellows published more than three dozen opinion pieces on a range of subjects — from why quarantining can be bad for your health to why Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ music matters — in a variety of high-profile, high-exposure publications. They included The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Scientific American, U.S. News & World Report, and The Hill, one of the nation’s most well-read websites.
Given how difficult it is for new voices to break into the closed media universe even in the best of times, The OpEd Project’s mentor-editors found the success of the University’s fellows during the pandemic especially remarkable. As Neil J. Young and Angela Wright noted, several front-line health care workers were writing between ICU shifts and while juggling new homeschooling, childcare, and other family challenges. Just 24 hours after giving birth to her own daughter, Candice A. Sternberg, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical medicine in the Miller School’s Division of Infectious Diseases, wrote about why pregnant women should take extra care against the coronavirus.
“The hurdles we face normally in this work are substantial,” Young said. “That’s why this organization exists. That’s why we do what we do. It’s hard to break into an unwelcoming media universe that has a closed gate. It’s hard for people to believe they have something worth saying. It’s hard for them to write in a form that they are not used to, and it’s hard to do additional work in already very busy lives. Those are the usual challenges; add the pandemic and it’s very impressive what Miami accomplished.”
Several fellows — including Erin Marcus, M.D., M.P.H., professor of clinical medicine, who had published opinion pieces on the need for more trees in the Miami Herald and on CDC reporting interference, the rush to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, and the prospects of ending the pandemic in The Washington Post, and the School of Law’s Osamudia James, J.D., whose commentaries on achieving genuine diversity in higher education and on race, isolation, and parenting in the time of coronavirus appeared in Ms. magazine and The Washington Post — were already accomplished writers in the public sphere. But, for the majority of the fellows, writing for a wider audience was a stretch that pushed them out of their academic comfort zone — to a place they realized they belonged.
The importance of taking chances
“I gained so much from it — especially strategies concerning how to write for a broader audience in a way that connects my expertise with current events,” said Frost School of Music ethnomusicologist Melvin Butler, Ph.D., one of only three male fellows, who in addition to the piece about the vice-president elect wrote about why Black gospel music still matters. “I was reminded of the importance of taking chances and motivated to embrace the fact that my voice can, should in fact, make a difference in the world,” Dr. Butler added.
Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and editor-in-chief of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, initially observed a confidence gap among the fellows, including herself. Calling each of the women “impressive with a capital I,” she said she caught herself wondering how she was included among them. But then she reminded herself of the sense of expertise and confidence the fellowship strove to instill.
“I think a lot of women started out as their own worst enemy, but this fellowship turned people into their own best advocates,” said Dr. Lieberman, whose initial column for Psychology Today, about mental app settings for mating, earned her an invitation to host a blog on the magazine’s website. “It made everyone say, ‘No, I am an expert because I have this number of years of training, I have these credentials, I do this type of research, and I am no less a voice you should listen to.’ ”
And that’s exactly what Dr. Palacio realized after U.S. News & World Report published her first column on how COVID-19 can help fight ME/CFS. She wrote the commentary both as a mother of a daughter whose ME/CFS went undiagnosed for years, and as a physician determined to put the condition with such varied symptoms on the radar of other unsuspecting physicians.
Connections bring collaborations
She also shared her hope that the connections between ME/CFS and the chronic fatigue symptoms that some COVID-19 patients are experiencing will offer a chance to combat the two debilitating conditions together. When Miami VA researcher Nancy Klimas, M.D., the director of the Institute for Neuro-Immune Medicine at Nova Southeastern University and a renowned authority on ME/CFS, reached out to collaborate with Dr. Palacio on her next article on the subject, she felt empowered to seize the opportunity.
Since then, Dr. Palacio has joined Dr. Klimas’ grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to screen COVD-19 survivors in Broward County for fatigue and several other persistent symptoms. And as a member of the Miami VA Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center, she applied for and received $1.2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to establish a multidisciplinary telehealth clinic for veterans who are experiencing persistent symptoms post-COVID-19 infection.
The clinic is slated to open in January — under the collaborative direction of a physician and mother who once doubted the value of her insights, training, and experience.
For Dr. Bixby, who had little trouble convincing Provost Jeffrey Duerk to support Public Voices, the fellowship was a worthy experiment.
“We weren’t sure that it would work, but it was a great success,” said Dr. Bixby, professor of pharmacology and neurological surgery who will return full time to his research at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis next year. “We are impressed by the passionate engagement of the fellows; their sense of purpose, team, and community; and most of all, the outcome — the development of a new community of UM voices who will continue to speak out and to be heard nationally.”