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Scientist finds her life transformed by Covid

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In a member of the government coronavirus advisory team THEO PANAYIDES finds a woman who dreamt of being a superhero who, despite seeing her personal life swallowed by Covid, is confident it will all end

Dr Zoe-Dorothea Pana sits waiting, in a surgical mask and a green dress, at the School of Medicine of European University Cyprus. She’s sitting just in front of the lift doors in the spot where you’d normally expect to see a receptionist, and for a moment I think she is the receptionist. It’s a daft mistake to make, given how prominent she is in the media, but I didn’t expect to see her there – and besides, it’s hard to recognise anyone when they have a mask hiding half their face. Masks are a curse upon the land. But let’s not go there.

Actually, we have to go there – because Zoe (the ‘Dorothea’ is mostly just on paper) is a member of the government’s coronavirus advisory team, inextricably linked in the public mind with lockdowns and mask mandates. Strangers recognise her when she’s out and about, she admits, and will sometimes approach her. “The majority of people are really very polite and kind to me,” she says, her mainland-Greek accent struggling a little with the ‘j’ in ‘majority’. What do they say? ‘Don’t lock us down’ is a frequent motif, she replies with a wry grin – “but it wasn’t about the Covid-19 committee, or the ministry,” she adds more seriously. “Nobody – and I can assure you, nobody wanted lockdowns!”.

Lockdowns arrived nonetheless, of course, and masks, and vaccines, and the rest of the unprecedented measures of the past 18 months. For her, even more than for the rest of us, it’s been life changing – and not just because it meant relocating to a new country. She arrived in Cyprus in 2019, simultaneously lecturing in Paediatrics at the university and pursuing a Master’s in infection control – but also working partly in Greece, going back and forth. The first lockdown found her here, living out of a suitcase; almost on a whim, she decided to stay – then happened to be invited on the advisory team (actually replacing someone else), made an impression with her candid style and communication skills, and the rest is history.

Her background isn’t primarily in epidemiology, in fact (unlike many of her colleagues on the team) she was very much a clinical doctor, spending years in public-sector hospitals like the Ahepa and Ippokratio in her native Thessaloniki: “As a paediatrician I’ve worked in paediatric haematology, oncology, then in infectious diseases”. The pivotal year in her professional life is undoubtedly 2016, when she won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore as a post-doctoral fellow in Infectious Disease; this was a big deal, not just because she’s the only Greek person to have completed that fellowship (she was also among three finalists for an excellence award for clinical research) but also because Johns Hopkins is such a well-known hub for the study of epidemiology and infection control.

“I changed completely, as a physician and as a researcher, after being there,” she tells me, having meanwhile relocated to her small, rather bare office. We open the window for ventilation – and a childish drawing of Hannah Montana nearly flies out in the sudden breeze, a souvenir from her work as a paediatrician. Zoe surprises me by doing the interview in English, as if trying to recapture that Johns Hopkins feeling – and her English is fluent but I wonder how different she’d have been in her native Greek, the language (I assume) she associates with feelings and reminiscences; English is the language of work, of reports and medical research. Then again, that side has largely taken over lately. “I try to have a personal life,” she sighs, “I have my friends here – but my priority, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and due to the fact that I am new in this country, is my work.”

That said, glimpses of the other side – the ‘Greek side’, the messy emotional self – keep peeking through. Her voice is soft, the eyes expressive; her energy comes with a certain mysterious quality. “I always regarded myself as a hybrid,” muses Zoe, speaking of her younger years. “On the one hand I’m very, very sensitive, and I love art, on the other hand I was very dynamic and wanted to do something with knowledge and science.” In a way the two aren’t so different, since science – particularly medicine – also comes cloaked in the emotive language of helping people. “As a child,” she recalls, “I wanted to be like a superhero, I wanted to provide help in everything… In the neighbourhood [games] I wanted to play the teacher, I wanted to play the doctor, always.” It’s something we tend to forget during Covid, with one-size-fits-all solutions imposed from on high; the work of a doctor – the actual practice of medicine – is intensely personal, the doctor-patient relationship a real relationship. You get involved, it’s only human. Did she never get depressed, I wonder, seeing all those sick kids and grieving parents in paediatric ICUs?

“When I was younger, yes – because, as I said, I was very, very emotional. But then you find your balance.”

profile2That’s something of a recurring motif in our conversation: the quest for balance, trying to reconcile opposing forces. On the one hand, a doctor is “a superhero”; on the other, she needs to be humble and serve the patient. On the one hand, you have to be caring; on the other, you have to “protect yourself”. On the one hand, doctors train incredibly hard; during her second Master’s (in nanotechnology) she was also doing her specialisation as a paediatrician (in neonatology, the medical care of newborns), says Zoe, so she’d work at the hospital till 6pm then head down to the lab, doing her thesis, till midnight. Yet the job itself often calls for that drive and dynamism to be set aside, and a doctor must become very kindly and avuncular when trying to reassure a frightened patient (especially a child). On the one hand, you strive to be perfect; on the other, as she puts it, you have to adjust.

The pandemic, too, calls for balance and adjustment – not just in the obvious ways but also, for instance, in fielding criticism. People who approach her in public may be polite, but social media teems with abusive comments. “Now, with vaccination, they say a lot of negative things,” she admits. “[But] I’m very focused on what I know will help. My decisions are oriented and focused on science and evidence.”

“We need to know that we are all together,” adds Zoe. “This is something we’re all living through, and I’m saying that because we need – also next year – to remain united… We are all very tired of the pandemic. All. I mean, everybody! And it’s very crucial and very important to keep our resilience in the following months. There will be surges and decreases, definitely, we will have new patients and variants of concern till we reach our global recession [in cases]. So we need to adjust. What does this mean? When we have a deterioration of the epidemiological situation, we have to be very strict with ourselves – because we understand that we need to protect ourselves, we need to protect the community and keep it open. And then, when we have recession, we can be a bit more relaxed.”

I know what she means, of course – but still, it’s depressing, all this talk of constant opening and closing and endless vigilance (lest we get too relaxed, and destroy the community). And what about the vaccines? Aren’t we supposed to be almost 80 per cent vaccinated? It’s like watching a play, I offer rather fancifully. (Theatre, like art, is one of her passions.) Act One was the advent of the virus, Act Two was waiting for the vaccines; now it’s Act Three, and we all feel the play should be over – but instead it’s just dragging on, and on.

“Vaccination is not a panacea,” she intones. “It’s the strongest weapon we have –”

It’s causing insecurity, though. No-one seems to know when the story will end.

“Insecurity, yes, you’re totally right… We all feel this insecurity. But definitely – because we have to remain optimistic – this will end. We don’t know the exact time, but this will end.” As for vaccines, adds Dr Pana, with the air of a dogged teacher trotting out a familiar lesson, “the vaccines still remain effective and safe, even in Israel or the USA. Maybe it was misunderstood that the main objective, or aim, of vaccination is to prevent severe disease and hospitalisation.”

Maybe so.

“I feel like communication strategies need to be improved,” she muses. “In all member states, and globally.”

Communication is another recurring motif – whether with patients in hospitals, or about Covid, or through art, or indeed between people. She used to be “more emotional,” she repeats more than once; it may be that she got too involved, as a younger woman, gave too much of herself – wanting to help, as ever – and ended up getting hurt, the eternal pitfall of the sensitive person. These days, “I invest very much in my working life, because it’s one of my priorities,” she tells me. “In my personal life, I am – a bit selective. This is something that I’ve gained over time”. She’s happy being with just a few friends, maybe walking in Nature (she loves the Cyprus landscape); she does hope to have a family one day, but right now it’s about keeping things simple – and of course her life is all Covid at the moment anyway.

Would she say she’s an easy-going person?

She laughs out loud at the question. “I look like an easy-going person,” she replies, “but I’m not. I am not!” She’s easy enough to get along with – “but I struggle a lot with myself,” she sighs. “I’m hyper-analytical. This is not easy. I admire people who are truly easy-going… They’re not concerned, they’re a bit superficial. I admire them.” Maybe – but she wouldn’t want to be them, surely? She shrugs noncommittally: “As I get older, I try to have a minimalistic approach in everything… I know what I want. I know how I am happy”.

Dr Zoe Pana seems like quite a complex character. Unexpected details abound, like the fact that she loves fencing (she discovered the sport in her medical-student days), or the fact that she’s very into Surrealist art. Fencing speaks to a dominant personality – the kind who would always want to play teacher or doctor, as a child – though it’s also about strategy, and anticipating your opponent; in its way, it’s a kind of communication. Surrealism speaks to a lateral thinker, plus a certain cool distance that presumably helps in keeping her balance. Her absolute favourite artist is perhaps Rene Magritte, whose best-known painting (for better or worse) is a picture of a pipe with the caption ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, ‘This is not a pipe’. She’s read a lot about Magritte, and loves his work: “It’s not only about painting. It’s about approaching life”.

We humans tend to think we’re the centre of the universe, she explains – but Surrealism shows that reality is a slippery thing, just like quantum physics (recall her Master’s in nanotechnology) implies that the universe is irrational, and probably incomprehensible. Maybe Covid, too, can act as a corrective to our hubris as a species, if only in making clear just how precarious our position is. “I feel like the pandemic can be an opportunity for humanity,” says Zoe-Dorothea Pana. “Not now!” she adds hastily, noting my shocked expression – but someday, when the nightly litany of cases and deaths is a distant memory, and masks have been consigned to some dusty closet. Maybe then we can think about Covid rationally, think about improvements and emergency plans for the next pandemic, “reassess the position of humans in Nature” – though also evaluate what we did right (and wrong), and whether the advice of scientists like her was ultimately helpful.

One thing’s for sure: for Zoe herself, Covid has been a game-changer, giving this former paediatrician a front-row seat in public health and infection control – her life’s dream, and the reason why she came to Cyprus in the first place. “Actually,” she admits with a laugh, “my friends tell me, ‘What did you wish a few months before the advent of the pandemic? Tell us!’”. For all the grimness of the past 18 months (which no-one in their right mind would wish for), she happened to be in the right place at the right time – though it has been grim, and stressful, even (or especially) for her, constantly in the spotlight with a deadly virus raging. What does she miss most, from the ‘old normal’? “The carefree-ness. Of everything,” she replies with a sigh. I nod in agreement, and my hand goes up to adjust my mask automatically.

 

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