Ariane Panzer, PhD

Immunology and microbiology enthusiast

Lab Work During Covid and My First Panic Attack

Do you think lab work is just carrying on as usual during COVID? I’m here to tell you it’s not. COVID adds obstacles that make research much more challenging. Here’s my experience:

Before COVID, I could go to my lab’s supply closet and find all the consumables I needed. Now, gathering supplies for an experiment is like a treasure hunt.

If it’s not in the stock room then I check shelves in the lab, then shared drawers and cabinets, I look on or in my lab mates' benches, and, finally, reach out to other labs.

Sometimes I find what I’m looking for and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can MacGyver something together and sometimes I have to cancel my experiment because it’s hard to proceed without pipette tips or microfuge tubes.

Other products are also, understandably, hard to get. I ordered a dendritic cell isolation kit in early December and the company told me the kits were unavailable indefinitely. Do I order a different kit and scrap previous experiments or do I hope indefinitely isn’t as nebulous as it sounds?

Currently, I’m doing experimental techniques I haven’t done in years and am learning some new techniques. With few lab mates around this has been both challenging and isolating.

There also exist smaller stressors like: wearing and breathing into a mask all day; forgetting your water bottle and panicking because the water fountain heads are covered; stopping what you’re doing for EH&S inspections to show you’re cleared for work even though you did that when you arrived on campus; visiting multiple floors in your building to find a restroom where the only stall available isn’t closed off; eating in the break room in 15 minute shifts; dealing with a lack of lab citizenship because no one is around; stressing out because other people on campus are not taking COVID as seriously as you; and being a run down 6th year who just wants to leave it all behind and graduate.

All of this makes long hours in lab longer; makes lengthy protocols that dictate when you can take a break to eat, hydrate, relieve yourself trickier to navigate; makes every task require more thought and prep; makes everything more strenuous.

And at the end of the day all you can do is go home, eat, sleep, wake up, and do it all again. There’s no escape, no social recharge.

For me this all took its toll one Friday this December when I had my first ever panic attack. I was eating dinner with my partner after a 10-hour day and then the room started spinning.

I felt like the world around me was collapsing and there was nothing I could do to stop it, nothing my partner could say to ground me. I felt dread and so overwhelmed that it seemed the only way for this to stop was to detach from my body. I thought I was dying and began repeating to my partner that I loved them.

The mental and physical toll eventually caused me to faint (a result of my vasovagal syncope) and when I came to I vomited.

The week before I was stressed but pushing forward. If you’d asked how I was I would have said “fine.” But “fine” quickly deteriorated into something awful and scary.

This is my story, it’s one of many. I am not alone in precariously teetering between fine and something awful and scary.

Labs may be open and research continues, but it should not and cannot carry on as usual. Check in on people. Show compassion.