By Stephanie Stevens
In November of 2019, UC San Diego Extension Clinical Trials instructor Suzan Olson happened to be traveling with family through Wuhan, China, en route to Nanchang in Jiangxi Province. What she didn't fully realize at the time was that she was there during the birth of the COVID-19 pandemic, the likes of which had not been seen since the Spanish Flu a century earlier.
Back in the US and over the next two months, Olson watched the world struggle with a newly-identified strain of SARS, a severe respiratory illness characterized by fever, headache, body aches, a dry cough, hypoxia (a low level of oxygen in the body) and pneumonia-like symptoms.
In many ways, Suzan Olson was uniquely qualified to recognize the onset of the pandemic. She spent 20 years as a cardiovascular nurse, reinventing her career in the late 1990s by getting graduate degrees in Healthcare Administration and Psychology/Human Factors and eventually shifting her focus from nursing to working as a clinical trials project manager in the pharmaceutical industry.
Olson began teaching for UCSD Extension in 2013 and has shared her extensive knowledge about the drug development process and drug devices and diagnostics with her students every quarter since.
And while she enjoys clinical trials work, Olson will fully admit that it's not necessarily her first love. Olson was an elite competitive bicyclist in her thirties and was tragically hit by a car, effectively ending her athletic aspirations. Seventeen broken bones in her ribs, arms, hands, legs and feet later – along with a lot of unprocessed feelings – Olson knew she had to re-evaluate her life. As she healed physically, she also came to understand the importance of emotional healing through forgiveness and the power of belief in her recovery.
"When you forgive someone, you don't need to revisit it again; you end up loving someone you've never met. And that only happens when you believe in a higher power," Olson shares.
And now, for the second time in her life, Suzan Olson has reinvented her career. After completing a two-year Clinical Pastoral Education program at the University of Kansas Health System to become a clinical chaplain, she'll specialize in hospice work in addition to teaching.
"It was a natural fit. I was a nurse who spent a lot of time with patients who were at the end of their lives," Olson notes.
When it comes to the development process for COVID-19 vaccines, Olson urges people to believe in the science, the structure of the approval process and, of course, encourages us all to get vaccinated.
"We're so careful. [Pharma] is an incredibly regulated industry because we don't want to harm the people we're trying to save," she shares. "Trust the process. Our government has an approved fast-tracked process. There's nothing wrong with that, but we still must follow the process."
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