#ATS2022 – The American Thoracic Society Meeting

I’ve been going to the American Thoracic Society conference since my first year of Pulmonary/Critical Care fellowship, when our program sent all first year fellows. Those first few years, we joined 15,000 colleagues from around the world as we found peers, collaborators, and mentors. We tried to go to many sessions and figure out what we wanted to study, while also trying to learn all of pulmonary and critical care medicine at once. It was overwhelming, but also an immersive experience in a culture of people who worked at ordinary day jobs by day, and then transformed. Where we had seen the daily grind of spreadsheets and gels and dishes of cells, we now saw visions of new ways of diagnosing, understanding, and treating disease. Over the years ATS became a reunion. An annual check in, not only of the coming to fruition (and not) of some of those prior visions, but also a reimagining of the future once again.

And then ATS wasn’t. 

I mean it was, but not really. We frantically recorded presentations and submitted abstracts for virtual only meetings. But we were also working in hospitals and trying to corral children into various directions. And once our work was submitted, we were done.

Did anyone log into those ATS sessions? Long past when the novelty of virtual meetings had worn off? Long after we had recognized how drained those virtual interactions left us? Did anyone finish their clinical work, save their research files, kiss their children good night, or tell them to put their plates in the dishwasher after finishing dinner, and then log in to listen to recorded talks? I’m sure people did. People, surely with more reserve, unbridled optimism, and focus than I had. But I didn’t. For two years we had hope that we would come together, and then disappointment, as we weighed risks and benefits of gathering, and didn’t. Again, and again, and again, we built up hope and energy only to fall back in disappointment.

Many of us were hesitant to submit abstracts yet another time, as the deadline came nearer, and hospitals were full, once again, and we were triaging patients and talking about crisis of care standards. And we just couldn’t imagine that we would come to weigh those same risks and benefits, yet again, and find that, collectively, we SHOULD gather. But promises were made, and hope was kept alive, and we submitted research findings – sprouts of seeds planted during these long and dark times. Our research an aspiration, a seed of hope that things beyond a single infection will matter. A promise that our lives will, once more, have room to hold ideas, and understanding of more ways of health and disease in the world.

So we submitted, and we were notified of acceptances, and we registered, and planned for travel, and at each step, another step was taken, and nobody canceled anything, and somehow, incredibly, many of us gathered in San Francisco for several days in May in the year 2022. And, as is often the case in life, showing up has made all the difference.

We gathered and sat in convention center conference rooms, yes, and we heard talks and saw slides, yes. Things we could have done and have been doing virtually. But also, at the end of talks, we saw people rise out of their seats, walk up to microphones, introduce themselves, and ask questions. And we shared experiences and insights, in real time, in real life. We were somewhat surprised, and if I’m being honest, relieved, to find out how many others had kept their own seeds growing. And we were often shocked at how many of those seeds of science, of research, of new visions, of life, had grown and developed over a time when it seemed the only topic of conversation and thought and intellectual energy was the only one that was always and forever named.

And while yes, there were fewer people in the sessions than in previous times, there were still people! Certainly more than we had seen in the recent past gathered for this purpose. And we found community.  We found our people and found that many of us looked different. Were we ALL grayer and older than we remembered being? Were we celebrating too many transitions as leaders passed on their mantles? 

“Is everyone just stepping down after having a life crisis and reevaluating their priorities?” I asked a senior mentor. 

“No,” he said. “It’s more that people hung on for the last few years longer than they were planning to, and now it’s time.”

Like a pregnant woman whose hair doesn’t fall out at the regular rate, and then all at once, after the baby, she sheds. She’s not going bald. She’s losing the hair she didn’t during this special period of growing a baby. We’re not losing people, we’re catching up on our usual life milestones and career transitions all at once.

People’s children grew older. They’re doing great, families bonded and spent more time together, picked up new hobbies. Kids fell behind in school, they’re catching up now, it’s not easy. They did great with school, elearning was fine. It was a disaster. And they were scared. And we were scared. But now we’re OK. We’re not OK. But the children grew and we were all there for it and now they’re still growing. And here we are again. 

Research, too, was feast or famine.  Labs shut down, research careers with more than a decade of investment were derailed as focus shifted to the bedside. And then transitions of what should I do now? What can I do now? Should I keep doing what I’ve been doing the last two years? Should I try to pick up the pieces and rebuild a career once again? 

Labs grew and more research was done.  Rapid funding with supplements bigger than the original grant came; new collaborations and teams were formed; new ways of doing research together were tried. And look at all that we did and how much more we can do still!

And all through this – community. A community of “we were there.” And we witnessed and experienced a lot of things together, and individually, and oh, how grateful we are to be together here again, now. And life is good and holds so much promise ahead. Community through breakfasts, and lunches, and dinners, and walks, and yes, even dancing. Especially the dancing. Like Stromae sings, life is hard, “Alors on Danse.” And dance we did, joining a chorus of ”Like a Virgin” as we lost sight of our grayer, older selves and found our way to energy and joy and community.

We went to talks about the science, but also about the challenge. Holding that we are mothers and also doctors and that we felt we failed at both. We failed at so many things. But we didn’t fail. Because we were there. And here we are. Holding that we took calls about who gets the last ECMO bed or the last ICU bed. Holding these decisions and feeling the weight of it and the guilt, and also holding other places, where those decisions were made differently. How many people did we kill? How many did we help? We did the best we could – is that enough? They tell us it is, and yet some of us are holding and turning things over in our minds, because maybe we could have done more. Maybe we should have turned right when we took a left, but we can’t quite see that left was better. Was it?

“I’m in therapy now because of that,” someone shares and we hold each other because it was hard and here we are! Together! On a beautiful spring night. Spring, the season when seeds come up and flowers bloom, things that seemed unimaginable only a few short months ago, when the world was blanketed by the cold snow. How could anything green and fragile come up again? But it does. Every year. If we just hold on.

6 Responses to “#ATS2022 – The American Thoracic Society Meeting”
  1. Albena Blagev says:

    It’s amazing – thank you for sharing love 

    Sent from AT&T Yahoo Mail for iPhone

  2. Blagev says:

    I’m so happy you are writing again. It is beautiful and covering so many aspects of life. Proud to be your parents. Love mom and dad❤️😀👍

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Michael P. Collins, MD says:

    The use of the work “kill” in this pod is disturbing. I over 40 years of medical practice, I have never thought that I might have “killed” anyone. I may have been outwitted by Mother Nature. I may have made the wrong decision at times (but that decision was based on the information and data I had at the initial event). I have always reserved the right to correct my ways or change my mind and/or recommendations due to the evolving clinical situation. But, I’ll have to recuse myself from ever using the word “kill”. No matter what the situation, a satisfactory and awesome clinical outcome has always been my goal.

  4. omnimom says:

    Love this!!! Great to read you again. ❤

  5. Annie Traub says:

    Dr Blagev, this is a wonderful read and it’s so nice to see you writing again. For what it’s worth my medical care with you has not been compromised during these last couple of years. You have remained a constant and reliable health care provider. I have many thanks to give you during these difficult times and always! Annie

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