Alumni Answer the Call in a Crisis

Jonathan Gelber '10 is interviewed by CNN's John King

Jonathan Gelber ’10, an emergency room physician, is on the front lines battling the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California.

Jennifer Doudna ’85, internationally famous for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique, is establishing a high-capacity coronavirus testing lab on the University of California, Berkeley campus.

And Victoria Paterno ’75 P ’07, an assistant clinical professor in pediatrics at UCLA Medical Center who had retired from private practice, has volunteered to return for COVID-19 duty and expects to be called to service in the coming weeks.

They are just a few of the many Pomona College graduates across the country who are responding to the pandemic. 

Paterno, like others, is thinking of the words on the College gates: “You know the ones, those words emblazoned on the gate as you leave: ‘They only are loyal to this college who departing bear their added riches in trust for mankind,’” she says. Paterno also volunteered her medical services in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “And as a physician the other words that guide my life are the Hippocratic oath which includes: ‘I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life to the service of humanity.’”

Here are some of their stories. We'll continue to update as we receive more.

Jonathan Gelber ’10

“The hospital that I work at, Highland Hospital in Oakland, is a safety net hospital,” Gelber told CNN on March 30. “We do care predominately for vulnerable patients, people of unstable housing or frankly, homeless. … When we work to plan discharges, when we tell people things like ‘shelter in place,’ [we’ve learned] to make sure people have a shelter to ‘shelter in place’ in. We think it’s a lot easier to tell somebody like me to go hang out at home for two weeks and get food delivered. It’s a little harder when the patient is a 55-year-old gentleman who lives in a tent encampment under the 45th Street bypass, and with 15 other people. 

“So we’ve learned how to plan for that and see our problems ahead of time before they arise. That’s saying, hey, how do we keep the curve flat, how do we keep patients like this from infecting other patients at shelters, at homeless encampments, as well as the general patient population? And how do we keep the people in the emergency room safe from infecting each other in the lobby? From infecting loved ones who are coming to visit? We’ve learned a tremendous amount from our colleagues in New York, Italy, China, Korea, all over the globe.”

Jennifer Doudna ’85

Doudna, the co-developer of CRISPR, quickly pivoted the focus of the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), which she founded and directs, toward a massive effort to use robotics and a streamlined process to perform 1,000 tests a day for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The organization expects to be able to perform up to 3,000 tests a day if needed.

“We are interested in serving the public good,” Doudna said in a news release from the Institute. “The expertise in our institute and in our community can address this public health emergency through the kind of coordination we are uniquely capable of.”

The UC Berkeley Tang Center and medical centers around the East Bay will collect patient samples, with tests expected to begin within a week of the March 30 announcement. Results are expected within 12 to 24 hours of sample collection, a dramatic improvement over the typical turnaround of five to seven days. 

A call for volunteers to join the effort produced more than 800 local researchers willing to help within hours. 

“All of our laboratories do PCR [polymerase chain reaction] every day,” Doudna said in the IGI release. “But for this test we need to go above and beyond to ensure we can provide accurate detection. We put in place a robotic pipeline for doing thousands of tests per day, with a pipeline for managing the data and getting it back to clinicians. Imagine setting that up—a process that would normally take months to years—in a couple of weeks. It’s really extraordinary and not something I’ve ever seen in my career.”

Victoria Paterno ’75 P ’07

“I am in a high-risk group (Class of ’75, i.e. older than 65!). Health care volunteering potentially involves personal risk. But this time, not only am I at risk but I put others, including my family, friends and others at risk. If I do work, will I get sick and use a bed that would have been better used for someone else? What are my moral and ethical obligations?

“All these thoughts ran through my head as I considered what I should do. Medicine has always been a calling for me, not a job. I find it difficult staying at home as I read about my medical colleagues on the front line. I finally decided that I must do something so I signed up on three different lists to volunteer my services, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CA Health Corps. I am part of the ‘second string’ of health care workers. I know that it is when, not if, that I will soon join my colleagues as we run out of beds, become short-staffed and do not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) available. 

“What can my fellow alumni do? Check your workplace, particularly if you work at a university or college. Many labs are shut down and may have PPE that they can donate. Fellow alumna and my Oldenborg Italian section roomie Katherine Dorfman ’74 did this weeks ago. (Grazie!) We can all minimize use of health care resources. That means driving safely, don't try new activities that increase your risk of accidents, and decrease the spread of COVID-19 by calling out people who do not follow the rules that protect us all.” 

Zack Haberman ’10 

“I am an emergency room doctor and clinical faculty (I teach resident physicians) at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, California. My ER serves a diverse community, including a large elderly and socioeconomically underserved population. I am seeing the number of COVID patients continue to grow. 

“While I can draw on what I’ve learned from basic science at Pomona, medical school and residency, the scariest part of the virus is how much is unknown. In many ways, I am used to that—my job is to see patients with an unknown illness or problem and make life-or-death decisions based on incomplete information. However, the more I see and read about the virus, it doesn’t seem to respond in the same way that other serious heart and lung emergencies do. Because of that, we still don’t know the best way to treat patients—especially the sickest ones. And unlike most emergencies, it is putting myself, my co-workers and our families at risk. I’ve already had to take care of my colleagues who have fallen ill from COVID, and I get a pit in my stomach knowing that there will be more to come. 

“The medical ramifications we all see every day in the news—how many infected, how many hospitalized, how many deaths. But also important are the social and economic ramifications. We have so many patients in the community who are working paycheck to paycheck. The ones who still have their jobs and also have symptoms of the virus are facing a catch-22—how do they balance going to work and supporting their family with potentially infecting others and spreading the virus? Just as vital, how do we as a society balance the safety of our hospital population and community with our humanity?  Should we ban visitors or family from seeing people who are hospitalized or even dying? 

“Emergency medicine requires being calm under stress, a ton of teamwork, flexibility and finding creative solutions. Pomona’s multidisciplinary education has been such an important base for my life as a doctor. We have to take concepts, apply what we know, learn from what we are seeing in China, Italy, New York, and figure out a way to slow the virus, flatten the curve and support the most vulnerable in the community. I feel very fortunate that the country has really come together and is showing so much support for the medical community. Overall, showing up to work is a bright spot in my day, even if it can make my heart ache. I get to work together with my friends and colleagues. Plus, it’s the one place we can be within six feet of each other.

“Stay safe! Hoping Pomona can reschedule that 10-year reunion so we can see each other in person when this improves.”

Vian Zada ’16

“I’m a rising fourth-year medical student at Georgetown University. Medical students across the country are helping out with the response in virtual ways! For me, I am part of the MedStar Telehealth Response Team, and with other students am calling thousands of patients with their test results. I am also a coach with our school’s disaster preparedness exercise, and leading Zoom sessions for first-year medical students.  

“I also have an Instagram page @studentsagainstcovid, which I am managing with some health professionals in the San Diego area, where I grew up. We are hoping to target younger audiences with information on social distancing and disease prevention.”

Jennifer Manganello ’93

“I am a professor at the University at Albany School of Public Health. As a health communication expert, I am trying to provide useful and easy-to-understand information about public health related topics. I started a blog on my website. I also created a short course for students who are home from school to teach them about the field of public health, and how public health is related to COVID-19. I am also working on research studies related to communication about COVID-19.”

David Siew ’98

“I am an internal medicine hospitalist physician at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington. Our hospital identified the first large-scale outbreak of COVID-19 disease in the United States after noting an influx of patients with unexplained respiratory disease from a local care facility. Up until that point, COVID-19 still felt a world away and none of these patients had the primary risk factor: international travel. We were shocked to discover ourselves at the initial national epicenter of the pandemic. I am amazed and humbled by the mobilization of our hospital and the multidisciplinary effort of every member of our organization to care for the community. My group continues to treat many hospitalized patients with the disease and has compiled the lessons we are learning for other health care providers.

“In my 14 years as a hospitalist, I have cared for thousands of patients with a diversity of ailments using a systematic approach that relies on standardized protocols, years of well-researched data, consultation with specialists, and personal experience as a clinician. In dealing with a novel illness without a clearly established treatment strategy, I have drawn upon many of the skills learned through my Pomona liberal arts education. In particular, I think back to my very first semester in Critical Inquiry when we were introduced to the process of independent thinking and research. The growing and evolving body of knowledge regarding COVID-19 requires providers to assimilate new information on a daily basis. Since there are many uncertainties, we have to collaborate with others and form our own critical conclusions on which to base our testing and treatment strategies.

“On a more personal level, while fulfilling my commitment to care for our community I have also had to confront concerns for the health and well-being of myself, my family, friends, and colleagues. The closeness I have felt towards them throughout this ordeal reminds me of the tight-knit culture on the Pomona campus. I am confident that we will overcome this health care crisis by working together as a medical community, and as a nation of individuals each doing our part to prevent further spread of disease.”

Daniel Low ’11

“I am a family medicine resident physician on the frontline of COVID-19 care in Seattle. The last several weeks have been dizzying, with protocols changing daily, if not hourly, in the clinic and hospital, as we prepare for and encounter surging patient loads.

“I am on back-up for the hospital nearly 24/7, but fortunately our health care system has not yet been overwhelmed, so most of the time I have been working in our clinic, transitioning from in-person to phone and video visits. Our phone lines have been inundated with scared patients, confused by the obfuscated messaging coming from our national leaders on what is safe versus what is recommended, etc.

“The challenges of this time are immense and vary tremendously from place to place. As a board member of the King County Medical Society, I am in constant communication with providers across the region and am serving as a liaison with media outlets about the greatest needs. In this work, I think it is critically important to highlight the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has on marginalized communities. Certainly, COVID-19 has touched virtually everyone, but the manifestations are exacerbating existing socioeconomic and racial inequities in our country. Community health centers are being hit particularly hard and are having particular difficulty in serving the most disenfranchised individuals in our communities. Without a critical lens focusing on the most vulnerable, things as seemingly utilitarian as the ethical rationing of limited ventilators will ultimately worsen healthcare disparities because criteria for respirators often focus on the absence of chronic conditions, and yet we know that structural violence and systemic racism has resulted in communities of color and economically disadvantaged people having higher rates of chronic conditions at baseline. I’m trying to push an agenda that focuses on and responds to the most underserved during this crisis, as we already have emerging data demonstrating that these communities are the most hard-hit.

“Amidst this cacophony of care and the ongoing struggle to find appropriate protective equipment, there have been, and continue to be, many signs of inspiration. Medical students are serving as caregivers for many of the healthcare providers’ children. Individuals are buying gift cards to their favorite local restaurants to help keep them in business. Folks are donating masks en masse to hospitals in need. Despite most blood drives being canceled, which has created an acute shortage of blood products, many people are driving greater distances to donate blood. Activists are using this as an opportunity to write to legislators to further important policies.

“In spite of the catastrophic loss invoked by COVID-19—to which I am immensely sorrowful—I have found this time to be a unique opportunity for reflection. To paraphrase one of my teachers, Tanmeet Sethi, has there ever been a time in history when the entire world was united against the same enemy? When religion, race, status, creed and all else seemed to fall so we could all fight our fear together? And can we imagine any other time in modern history that we have let the magnificence of Mother Nature simply rest, allowing us to more clearly see the beauty that surrounds us? And is it possible that our social distancing may help us recognize our innate need for connection? Could this virus be an opportunity for us to each recognize the importance of being with one another and appreciate what truly matters?

“I am trying to make sense of this suffering and continue to find meaning in my patients and friends every day, to which I feel extremely blessed.”

Kate Dzurilla ’11

A nurse practitioner in inpatient medicine at NYU Langone hospital in New York, Dzurilla is working night shifts on a floor of entirely COVID-19 patients. The city has been at the center of the nation’s outbreak, with deaths from the disease surpassing the number of deaths in the city in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the evenings before she goes to work, Dzurilla hears the city’s cheers. 

 “I live on the Upper West Side, and look forward to 7 p.m. every night when we open our windows to hear cheers, applause, trumpets, bells, dogs barking, etc. Each night over the past week the cheers are growing louder. I cheer for my colleagues working in medicine, but also for the other essential personnel that are making this time in our lives easier, like those working in grocery stores, hardware stores, and bodegas, and delivering food and driving public transportation that helps me get to work. It reminds me that we’re all in it together, and that despite how unbelievable and painful this time is, we still feel hope and optimism.”

As a nurse practitioner, Dzurilla manages, coordinates, and evaluates care of up to 22 patients on the night shift in collaboration with an attending physician. She earned a B.S. in nursing from Columbia University and a master’s from the Yale School of Nursing after graduating from Pomona with a degree in neuroscience and psychology.

Vicki Chia ’08 

“I am a chief resident in obstetrics and gynecology at a large safety net hospital in New England, where I have borne witness to the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the birth experiences of patients whose communities have historically experienced denials of reproductive freedom.  

“Restricting the presence of a patient's labor support person(s), disclosing their diagnosis of COVID-19, and making the recommendation of separation from their baby feels like an emotional assault on a new parent, especially one who has limited resources in terms of housing and childcare. 

“Additionally, my fellow health care providers and I are experiencing the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) through hospital policies that ration or require reuse of PPE, and limitations in testing capacity have resulted in late diagnosis and delayed identification of health care worker exposures. 

“COVID-19 has also impacted surgical education: Medical students have been restricted from clinical learning, and because all elective surgeries have been canceled for the foreseeable future, it is likely that I may not do another hysterectomy for a long time. 

“In addition, my colleagues who are pregnant have had to make difficult decisions about whether to continue providing face-to-face patient care as they approach later gestational ages, with the rest of us restructuring our clinical duties to support each other. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a level of uncertainty that has required a difficult balance between patient-centered and population-centered approaches, and it has revealed many deficiencies that have long existed in our current health care and socio-economic systems overall. 

“I hope that we as a society emerge from this with important lessons learned about the dangers of private ownership of the means of delivering housing, health care, and other services that should be considered human rights.”

Johanna Glaser ’10 

“I’m a fourth-year medical student, one month away from receiving my M.D. Medical schools across the country have made different decisions about the role of medical students during the COVID-19 crisis. My school, UCSF [the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine] is considering all third-year and fourth-year medical students to be essential personnel in caring for patients who are not suspected of having COVID-19 or exposure to the virus. This means that my classmates and I can still help to manage other acute needs in our hospitals and medical clinics while maintaining low risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 [the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19].

“I just finished a rotation in a skilled nursing facility at the local VA [Veterans Affairs] hospital. All of my patients during this time, men over 70 years old with comorbidities, were among the highest risk for serious illness and death if exposed to SARS-CoV-2. It’s been devastating to see the fatality rate of this pandemic among the elderly, especially those residing communally, with about a fifth of all deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 being linked to nursing facilities. Luckily, not a single occupant of the facility where I was on rotation had any worrisome symptoms nor had tested positive for the virus.

“This, however, came at the cost of extreme isolation for this otherwise highly sociable group of men. All non-essential visitation and all group activities, such as communal dining, games and group exercise sessions, were suspended. Even the ability of patients to traverse the floors of the facility was debated, meaning that one of my patients nearly lost the ability to feed the fish in the lobby, which is one of his favorite daily routines (happily, they made an exception in this case). 

“Volunteers have worked to get donations of iPads to isolated patients in hospitals and nursing facilities. One of the more heartening moments during my rotation was a virtual Passover Seder administered by a rabbi to a spirited ex-Army colonel in his early 90s; my patient’s sparkling eyes and ear-to-ear smile in anticipation of the ceremony stuck with me all week. We were also able to set up video chats with the loved ones of our patients who had access to the necessary technology to receive a video call. This was a really nice option, but highlighted yet another way that people with more resources are faring better during this crisis. 

“In general, I’m interested to see how the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the inequalities in our healthcare system. Millions of U.S. workers have lost access to health insurance due to new unemployment, highlighting the need for reforms that promote universal access to affordable care. Black Americans make up about 33% of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 despite representing only 13% of the population, further exposing the stark disparities in underlying health and access to preventive care among different racial groups. 

“I hope that we can take this moment to reexamine how we deliver health and essential services in our country, with a new focus on marginalized populations and health equity. This will mean thoughtfully approaching care for sick elders as well. The immense impact of COVID-19 among the elderly makes now the perfect time to consider how to provide better patient-centered care for those over 65. For example, we can expand palliative care services to ensure goal-concordant care, thoughtfully establish ethical guidelines for ventilator rationing that do not use age as the sole criterion, and establish protocols specific to the management of geriatric patients with COVID-19. (We currently have protocols for pediatric patients and for adults with COVID-19, but not for elders, which is important because older patients are likely to experience different presenting symptoms and disease course.) In the medical context and more broadly, let us take this unprecedented event as an opportunity to avoid unnecessary suffering and inequality in the future.”

Satasuk “Joy” Bhosai ’05

“I serve both clinical and non-clinical roles at Duke. Clinically, I’m a hospital medicine physician and instructor for Duke University Health System in North Carolina. Outside of clinical duties, I serve as chief of digital health and strategy for the Duke Clinical Research Institute, which is a large research organization involved in conducting several clinical trials. As well, I’m associate director for the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, which is a great nonprofit that was started by McKinsey & Company and the World Economic Forum, to help curate and scale innovations worldwide. 

“As a hospitalist, I'm trying to leverage our network to get health workers around the nation PPE [personal protective equipment]. I’ve worked with a company called Prometheus, which I think is amazing, because I know Prometheus is painted in the dining hall in Frary! Prometheus is a company that actually doesn’t even specialize in making PPE, but works on carbon neutral fuels. But they have great machinery and lots of materials and they were able to make and provide thousands and thousands of disposable plastic face shields for health workers in New York and to various hospitals around North Carolina. Prometheus has been really great because they've been donating face shields in smaller quantities and just started charging only at cost for larger orders. And so they are a great example of how even if you traditionally don't make PPE or hand sanitizers, you can pivot in times of need. I have colleagues working tirelessly to contact manufacturers and get face masks made. Luckily, since we're in North Carolina, there's a lot of great manufacturing. Some of the mills have shifted production to make much-needed PPE. This grassroots approach helps me feel at least there's some light in all of this. Seeing people band together has been really nice.

“I'm also working on telemedicine strategies to be implemented so that contact between infected patients and providers can be minimized while encouraging open lines of communication. So we can use, say, video conferencing tools and telemedicine tools like video chats and digitally enabled stethoscopes to augment and interact with the patients while being able to minimize exposure risk if able. It helps conserve PPE, protects staff and also ultimately protects the patients because if the staff remain COVID-19 negative, then you're not passing it on to other patients. 

“We also have an innovator network here at Duke in the Innovations in Healthcare group. It consists of 99 innovators working in over 90-countries worldwide. And so within our network, we're trying to connect all of the great innovations together into one cohesive COVID-19 platform that can be scaled worldwide. A number of our innovators work with hundreds of thousands of community health workers in places like India, Bangladesh, Kenya, China and Chile. So an example would be there's an innovator group that has a COVID-19 risk assessment model, and we have one innovator that has close to 6 million users in their network, but they don't have a specific aspect of a COVID monitoring tool. We're coming out with an initiative to try to really propel COVID efforts in global settings in a cohesive fashion. Our group is trying to assist in COVID efforts for countries where access to health resources are limited. 

“Pomona has taught me the importance of working in cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams. I think especially at times like this, those learnings have really provided the foundation for collaborative work. I think that's how Pomona really encourages students to grow and work with others. I absolutely adore Pomona and will be always be thankful for these lessons.”