Ephs on the Frontlines: A Year Later

by Dennis Kuo '93

a person sitting down wearing a face mask and holding a sticker that reads "I got my Covid-19 Vaccine!"

When I wrote my “Ephs on the Frontlines” entry, our country was in full-blown crisis mode. We had a singular focus on stopping the infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Health care workers, like myself, were called “frontline,” “heroes,” and “warriors.” The war allegory was everywhere, applied to an enemy we did not fully understand.

We’re all frontline, though. Every one of us was affected by this virus, regardless of whether we were directly exposed or not. Take my parents, who physically were as backline as it gets, isolating themselves at home. But my mother died in June, not from COVID-19, but from a sudden illness abetted by delayed health care.

One year later, I’m still wearing masks at work. I wear an N95, a face shield, and gloves for every in-person patient encounter. I do a lot of telehealth and am writing telehealth tips and guidelines for a national project. I was among the first to be vaccinated and I’ve volunteered to give the vaccine to others. Western New York endured its second wave of COVID-19, so I spent the Thanksgiving holiday working with my pediatric hospitalist faculty to temporarily accommodate adult patients up to 30 years of age at the children’s hospital.

The pandemic is so much more than the infections, though. It’s about contradictions. Children are largely not getting sick, but empty emergency rooms and inpatient units put children’s hospitals in a financial bind. Stay-at-home orders protect against infections, but tax revenue is needed to mitigate the resulting economic calamity. We enjoyed having our Eph daughter back at home for a while, but we all knew she would rather be back on campus.

The pandemic is also about collateral damage. Underlying health disparities are laid bare for us to see, if we choose to look. As pediatricians, we’re seeing children who are increasingly overweight, depressed, anxious, and falling behind in school. As humans, we’re stressed, tired, and sniping at one another about opening up or closing down. My mother is dead; my father lost his spouse after 55 years of marriage; my brother and I are now sandwich generation caregivers.

In many respects, my family is doing okay. My spouse and I still have our jobs and our house. Our Eph daughter is back on campus. Our younger daughter’s extracurriculars were impacted, so she found her own frontline worker job, reasoning that she might as well adapt and move on. I drank a lot of coffee and bought a midlife crisis car, which isn’t as exciting as it sounds once you realize it’s a small economy car. Longtime Williams friends chuckle: that’s so Dennis.

The infections will recede again. We’ll be dealing with the fallout from the contradictions and collateral damage for years. Returning to the way things were in February 2020 is not an option for me. As The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says, we will be restoring normality…just as soon as we are sure what was normal anyway.

During the past year, we invited alumni to share reflections as they faced Covid-19 early on through their professional occupations. A year later, they look back and reflect on lessons learned. Find and read Dennis' original 'Ephs on the frontlines' submission

We welcome alumni on the front lines to submit their own reflection in written form or by recording a short video.

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