Dr. Michelle Au ’99
Dr. Michelle Au ’99 is an anesthesiologist at Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, G.A.
Photo provided by Johnathon Kelso

Wellesley Alumnae on the Front Lines of Health Care in the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 9, 2020

“Who would imagine that in the United States of America doctors would have to go on social media begging for supplies?” Dr. Michelle Au ’99, an anesthesiologist in Atlanta, said in a recent article in the New York Times.

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Wellesley College alumnae like Au are working across the country and the world on the front lines of health care—as doctors, nurses, EMTs, public health officials, and volunteers.

Au believes this pandemic is especially challenging because it is not a single isolated event. “It’s not 9/11, where we had one critical day and then months of aftermath,” she said in an email. “This is a slow-moving disaster, and much of the anxiety stems from not knowing when, exactly, this will end.”

“There’s also the anxiety of continual exposure and risk. As an anesthesiologist, one of my duties is to head up the emergency airway team, which intubates COVID patients in respiratory failure,” she continued. “It’s a high-risk procedure for infection, and I do worry that doing my job comes at a cost to me and my family. I worry about the health of those around me, and I worry about bringing the virus home with me from work. And that’s different from other types of medical crises or mass casualty situations.”

Dr. Gloria Tsan ’99 spoke to WCNC, Charlotte’s NBC affiliate, about her experience working as an emergency room doctor in Charlotte, N.C.
Photo provided by WCNC

The crisis has prompted Dr. Gloria Tsan ’99, an emergency room doctor in Charlotte, N.C., to update her will. “There are doctors and nurses that are hospitalized and dying from this in New York, ones that I know,” she told WCNC, Charlotte’s NBC affiliate. She and her spouse, an emergency room nurse, sent their young son to live with other family members because of the risk of transmission to medical providers. “Not being able to give my son a hug and a kiss or sit with him on the couch or see him every day is really hard for me,” Tsan said.

Tsan, who recently discussed her experiences in a Zoom gathering with fellow ’99 alumnae, wrote in an email that “it is really up to everyone in your community as to how hard you will be hit by COVID-19. Lots of asymptomatic people out there are spreading the virus. We need everyone to take social distancing seriously and wear a fabric mask in public to slow the spread of the virus.”

Tsan also organized a personal protective equipment (PPE) donation drive and is encouraging people to donate any PPE they can to their local ERs. “This way we can protect ourselves so we can continue to treat patients in the community,” she said.

In New York City, currently the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, EMT Goldy Landau ’17 has seen the impact of the pandemic across the health care system. She has noticed a rationing of care, the repurposing of departments and staff in hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients, and a decrease in the number of patients receiving routine care because of fears of transmission. She also sees firsthand the emotional toll on patients, and on their loved ones, who can’t ride with them in the ambulance, or in some cases, say their final goodbyes in the hospital. Landau says these are the effects of “no visitors” policies that leave patients all alone in understaffed hospitals with nobody to advocate for them.

Landau believes her time at Wellesley helped prepare her to deal with this pandemic. “Wellesley really challenged me, and it made me resourceful,” she said. “It made me see the world through a different lens, gave me a broader, more systemic view of the institutions and obstacles that all work together in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, and taught me the importance of asking tough questions.”

“This may be the health-care profession’s most trying moment. But in the end, I think it will also be our finest hour.”

Dr. Michelle Au ’99

While Landau faces a certain amount of risk every day in her job under normal circumstances, she is now dealing with an increase in call volume, physically taxing situations, and uncertainty. But it is a challenge that Landau is prepared to face, and she plans to pursue a nursing degree in the fall, either at Johns Hopkins University or at Phillips School of Nursing at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.

Au, who is running for a state senate seat in Georgia, believes that at the end of this pandemic, “we’re going to come out with the most incredible crop of medical students and allied health professional applicants this nation has ever seen.”

“An entire generation of young people is going to be shaped by this experience, and though it’s hard to see to the other side of this thing, it will end, and the effects will bear fruit,” she said. “Showing the importance of a strong health-care workforce, that responsibility to our patients, and our ingrained duty to serve is something I feel is very important right now. This may be the health-care profession’s most trying moment. But in the end, I think it will also be our finest hour. And aspiring students should know that we are cheering for them to roll up their sleeves and join our ranks, because we have a lot of work yet to do.”

This is the first part of a series following alumnae leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay tuned in the weeks to come for more stories from the front lines.