Docs Become Dog Groomers and Warehouse Workers After COVID-19 Work Loss

Monya De, MD, MPH

February 24, 2021

One of the biggest conundrums of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the simultaneous panic-hiring of medical professionals in hot spots and significant downsizing of staff across the country. From huge hospital systems to private practices, the stoppage of breast reductions and knee replacements, not to mention the drops in motor vehicle accidents and bar fights, have quieted operating rooms and emergency departments and put doctors' jobs on the chopping block. A widely cited survey suggests that 21% of doctors have had a work reduction due to COVID-19.

For many American doctors, this is their first extended period of unemployment. Unlike engineers or those with MBAs who might see their fortunes rise and fall with the whims of recessions and boom times, physicians are not exactly accustomed to being laid off. However, doctors were already smarting for years due to falling salaries and decreased autonomy, punctuated by endless clicks on electronic medical records software.

Now, the twin shock of income loss and feeling unwanted in a pandemic — when, you know, medicine might seem especially essential — has doctors resorting to a bizarre array of side gigs, "fun-employment" activities, or outright career overhauls.

Stephanie Eschenbach Morgan, MD, a breast radiologist in North Carolina, trained for 10 years after college before earning a true physician's salary.

"Being furloughed was awful. Initially, it was only going to be 2 weeks, and then it turned into 2 months with no pay," she reflected.

Eschenbach Morgan and her surgeon husband, who lost a full quarter's salary, had to ask for grace periods on their credit card and mortgage payments because they had paid a large tax bill right before the pandemic began. "We couldn't get any stimulus help, so that added insult to injury," she said.

With her time spent waiting in a holding pattern, Eschenbach Morgan homeschooled her two young children and started putting a home gym together. She went on a home organizing spree, started a garden, and, perhaps most impressively, caught up with 5 years of photo albums.

A bonus she noted: "I didn't set an alarm for 2 months."

Shella Farooki, MD, a radiologist in California, was also focused on homeschooling, itself a demanding job, and veered toward retirement. When one of her work contracts furloughed her ("at one point, I made $30K a month for [their business]"), she started saving money at home, teaching the kids, and applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Her husband, a hospitalist, had had his shifts cut. Farooki tried a radiology artificial intelligence firm but backed out when she was asked to read 9200 studies for them for $2000 per month.

Now, she thinks about leaving medicine "every day."

Some doctors are questioning whether they should be in medicine in the first place. Family medicine physician Jonathan Polak, MD, faced with his own pink slip, turned to pink T-shirts instead. His girlfriend manages an outlet of the teen fashion retailer Justice. Polak, who finished his residency just 2 years ago, didn't hesitate to take a $10-an-hour gig as a stock doc, once even finding himself delivering a shelving unit from the shuttering store to a physician fleeing the city for rural New Hampshire to "escape."

There's no escape for him — yet. Saddled with "astronomical" student loans, he had considered grocery store work as well. Polak knows he can't work part time or go into teaching long term, as he might like.

Even so, he's doing everything he can to not be in patient care for the long haul — it's just not what he thought it would be.

"The culture of medicine, bureaucracy, endless paperwork and charting, and threat of litigation sucks a lot of the joy out of it to the point that I don't see myself doing it forever when imagining myself 5-10 years into it."

Still, he recently took an 18-month hospital contract that will force him to move to Florida, but he's also been turning himself into a veritable Renaissance man; composing music, training for an ultramarathon, studying the latest medical findings, road tripping, and launching a podcast about dog grooming with a master groomer. "We found parallels between medicine and dog grooming," he says, somewhat convincingly.

Also working the ruff life is Jen Tserng, a former forensic pathologist who landed on news websites in recent years for becoming a professional dog walker and house sitter without a permanent home. Tserng knows doctors were restless and unhappy before COVID-19, their thoughts wandering where the grass might be greener.

As her profile grew, she found her inbox gathering messages from disaffected medical minions: students with a fear of failing or staring down residency application season, and employed doctors sick of the constant grind. As she recounted those de facto life coach conversations ("What do you really enjoy?" "Do you really like dogs?") by phone from New York, she said matter-of-factly, "They don't call because of COVID. They call because they hate their lives."

Michelle Mudge-Riley, MD, a physician in Texas, has been seeing this shift for some time as well. She recently held a virtual version of her Physicians Helping Physicians conference, where doctors hear from their peers working successfully in fields like pharmaceuticals and real estate investing.

When COVID-19 hit, Mudge-Riley quickly pivoted to a virtual platform, where the MDs and DOs huddled in breakout rooms having honest chats about their fears and tentative hopes about their new careers.

"There has been increased interest in nonclinical exploration into full- and part-time careers, as well as side hustles, since COVID began," she said. "Many physicians have had their hours or pay cut and some have been laid off. Others are furloughed. Some just want out of an environment where they don't feel safe."

An ear, nose, and throat surgeon, Maansi Doshi, MD, from central California, didn't feel safe — so she left. She had returned from India sick with a mystery virus right as the pandemic began (she said her COVID-19 tests were all negative) and was waiting to get well enough to go back to her private practice job. However, she said she clashed with Trump-supporting colleagues she feared might not be taking the pandemic seriously enough.

Finally getting over a relapse of her mystery virus, Doshi emailed her resignation in May. Her husband, family practice doctor Mark Mangiapane, MD, gave his job notice weeks later in solidarity because he worked in the same building. Together, they have embraced gardening, a Peloton splurge, and learning business skills to open private practices — solo primary care for him; ENT with a focus on her favorite surgery, rhinoplasty, for her.

Mangiapane had considered editing medical brochures and also tried to apply for a job as a county public health officer in rural California, but he received his own shock when he learned the county intended to open schools in the midst of the pandemic despite advisement to the contrary by the former health officer.

He retreated from job listings altogether after hearing his would-be peers were getting death threats — targeting their children.

Both doctors felt COVID-19 pushed them beyond their comfort zones. "If COVID hadn't happened, I would be 'owned.' In a weird way, COVID made me more independent and take a risk with my career."

Obstetrician Kwandaa Roberts, MD, certainly did; she took a budding interest in decorating dollhouses straight to Instagram and national news fame, and she is now a TV-show expert on "Sell This House."

Like Doshi and Mangiapane, Polak wants to be more in control of his future — even if selling T-shirts at a mall means a certain loss of status along the way.

" Aside from my passion to learn and to have that connection with people, I went into medicine...because of the job security I thought existed," he said. "I would say that my getting furloughed has changed my view of the United States in a dramatic way. I do not feel as confident in the US economy and general way of life as I did a year ago. And I am taking a number of steps to put myself in a more fluid, adaptable position in case another crisis like this occurs or if the current state of things worsens."

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