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“Doc in a box” … That was what they first called me when I joined the Retreat back in 2018. It was a simpler time, where the verb “zoom” was mostly associated with a young child racing a toy car.

As you can imagine, something as foreign as meeting your doctor on a computer screen was as well received as a Yankees fan at Fenway.

However, my passion for working with those in need, combined with my love for Vermont, were all that I needed to persevere.

I actually spent every summer since I was born in the Green Mountain State, my siblings and I, practically raised by Lake Champlain. So when the opportunity arose to join the dedicated clinicians at the Brattleboro Retreat, I jumped, well … logged in remotely, at the chance.

In the early days, I was at a disadvantage. My patients entered their interview room expecting to shake the hand of the doctor who would be privy to their most intimate of secrets, caring for them in their darkest, most vulnerable hour. As I watched them look around, often confused as to why they found themselves alone, I couldn’t help but think how much easier it would have been if I were physically there to greet them. The truth was that I was actually hundreds and often thousands of miles away, rendering that an impossibility.

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“You’re just a TV doctor!” and “I’m not talking until my real doctor gets here!” were two of the more common responses I received upon introducing myself. The patients couldn’t see my wall of fancy diplomas, or simply chose to assume that I couldn’t possibly care for them if I wasn’t there in person.

As time marched on, though, I became more comfortable in the process, which translated into my patients voicing more confidence in me. They started to see me less as an outsider and more as somebody that could be working anywhere, but chose to work at their small, rural hospital, even if my family responsibilities required that I be geographically elsewhere.

When the pandemic arrived, I felt uniquely prepared. As many had their lives upended, and those in the medical field struggled to adapt to treating their patients remotely, I was already seasoned and capable of taking on larger workloads. With the click of a button, I was transported to all corners of the hospital, instantly capable of providing care for patients who might not have access to a specialist. I had the luxury and privilege of avoiding time-consuming commutes, not needing to call out sick, or place my family’s health at greater risk of an infectious disease. I was better protected against physical and emotional fatigue.

Because I never under-appreciated these facts, my gratitude motivated me to pay it forward, to be the best clinician I could be. I volunteered for the role of training the Retreat’s on-site Dartmouth medical students, who will go on to serve future patients around the country. I joined the hospital’s Medical Executive Council, providing me a voice in how best the Retreat can serve our community. Working remotely even made me a better colleague to the true frontline staff at the Retreat, who tirelessly serve as my right and left hands, effectively making my job possible in the first place. Because of frequent telephonic communication with our nurses, social workers and behavioral health technicians, I truly believe that we are able to provide improved patient outcomes.

As I approach my fifth year at the Retreat, with the worst of COVID-19 hopefully behind us, I look forward to a return to normalcy, where our patients and their doctors can once again shake hands as they forge strong therapeutic alliances. I believe, however, that a new normal can and should include tele-psychiatry. As my own journey has demonstrated, there are upsides and opportunities aplenty. I’m a committed, compassionate doctor, so please don’t put me in a box.

Dr. Jarred Zucker is a staff psychiatrist on the Brattleboro Retreat’s Emerging Adult Inpatient Unit.