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COVID-19 | Nov/Dec '20

Fellowship in a Pandemic: Finding Opportunity in Crisis

Building connections despite the distance in the era of COVID-19.

It was noon on fellowship match day. Midway through a phaco-trabeculotomy procedure at the Philadelphia VA, I heard my phone ding. My fate had been decided. Although my hands were doing surgery, my mind was scrolling through the names I might see when I could finally check my phone. John Berdahl, MD? Terry Kim, MD? Doug Koch, MD? Anat Galor, MD? Mark Hansen, MD? Mark Terry, MD?

The case ended, and, before I could see the sender’s name, the text opened up: “Congratulations, and welcome to the tundra of South Dakota!” Yes! I had matched at my top-choice program, Vance Thompson Vision in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The weight of uncertainty was lifted, and I was prepared to enjoy the end of my third year of residency with celebrations, surgeries, and freedom. And then COVID-19 happened.

As the hospitals filled, elective outpatient appointments and surgeries were paused. N95s became a staple in my daily uniform, and the possibility of being deployed to the ER or ICU loomed overhead. To make matters worse, my wife and I were stuck at home on the 19th floor of a building with no access to our amenities. Anticlimactic would be an understated description for the end of my residency. Graduation was cancelled, goodbyes were virtual, and, just like that, it was over.


My wife Morgan, who was 8 months pregnant at the time, and I packed up the car with our two cats, dog, and belongings and drove across the country to our new—albeit temporary—home in Sioux Falls. On arrival, we were met with maskless faces, handshakes, and a city that was largely untouched by the pandemic (at the time). What a difference from Philadelphia!

Aside from universal masking, it was business as usual at Vance Thompson Vision, which meant high-volume surgery—and fast. Given that my anticipated caseload in residency had dropped by more than 100 cases, you can imagine how nervous I was to operate in front of Dr. Berdahl for the first time. (Fortunately, one of the former Vance Thompson Vision fellows had already earned the nickname Rusty!)

In a short time, I was doing 50 cases a week, my baby boy Devin was born, and we had settled into our new lives in South Dakota. When working with Drs. Berdahl, Dr. Thompson, and Daniel Terveen, MD, all day, it’s hard to be anything but happy! But something was missing.


Along the fellowship interview trail, I had formed—and rekindled—dozens of friendships with a cohort of residents who were interested in the anterior segment. Together, we hopped from city to city, interviewing, sampling local cuisine, and sharing libations. As the trail ended, we stayed in touch via WhatsApp and learned of each other’s matches for the next year. The best part was that we would all be seeing each other at the upcoming 2020 Cornea Fellow Summit. Then, once again, COVID-19 had other plans.

As the ripcord was pulled on all live meetings, we knew it was inevitable that the Cornea Fellows Summit would become virtual. On the plus side, the past 8 months had turned all of us (even our oldest attendings) into Zoom experts. But still, no virtual meeting could replace the in-person connections that we fellows would have otherwise continued to foster. My brain started churning, and I wondered how we could continue to stay in touch despite the distance.

I remembered that my coresidents, all of whom went into retina, would tune into a biweekly retina conference, where they would share cases with colleagues from around the globe. I thought, why couldn’t we do the same in cornea? Enter, Cornea Fellow Grand Rounds! My idea was, for each session, a cornea fellow could present a case on a particular topic to a select panel of experts, and all cornea fellows could tune in to provide their own insights and ask questions. Plus, we would be able to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices regularly.

With the concept formed, I pitched it to the Cornea Society, and they were immediately supportive. Amazingly, Zeba Syed, MD, had concurrently formed a complementary idea to launch a journal club for cornea fellows. Fortunately, the leader of Cornea Society University, Jessica Ciralsky, MD, has a keen interest in both cornea fellow education and community building and was supportive of these new ideas. With the Cornea Fellows Summit, Cornea Fellow Grand Rounds, and Cornea Fellow Journal Club, we officially formed the Fellows Educational Summit, a virtual curriculum designed to allow cornea fellows from around the country to reconvene monthly. Finally, a way to connect!


COVID-19 has forced change upon all of us. For many, the hardest part of the pandemic has been the isolation from our peers. But, with a little effort, we can continue to connect in ways we never imagined. To my cohort of fellows: We are the COVID-19 class; let’s stay in touch!

Author’s note: The Cornea Society has a long history of commitment to cornea fellows and recent fellowship graduates. In addition to the programs listed here, membership benefits include a subscription to the society’s journal, Cornea, as well as access to members’ only content on the society website, www.corneasociety.org.

Brian Shafer, MD
  • Fellow in cornea, refractive, glaucoma, and anterior segment surgery, Vance Thompson Vision, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
  • brian.shafer@vancethompsonvision.com
  • Financial disclosure: None