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MIT Engineers on the COVID-19 Frontline: Dr. Ellen Hwang Kim '97

July 29, 2020, 2:16 p.m. (ET)

Content Courtesy of MIT Athletics

Dr. Ellen Hwang Kim ’97 was a four-year starter on MIT’s field hockey team and helped the Engineers capture the program’s first conference championship following a 1-0 victory over Babson College in the 1994 New England Women’s 8 Conference title game. A NEW 8 All-Conference Team selection and a National Field Hockey Coaches Association National Academic Squad honoree, she graduated with a degree in Course 7 (Biology) along with a minor in music. Ellen went on to receive her M.D. from Drexel University College of Medicine and then completed her residency in family medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where she served as chief resident. She currently works in private practice at Wrightstown Family Medicine in Newtown, Pennsylvania and is a mother to four children, ages 6, 9, 10, and 12. In her own words, Ellen shares how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her professional and personal life.

My medical practice cares for a wide range of patients from newborns to great grandparents. We wanted to stay available and offer medical care and treatment to those who need it. However, it was necessary to protect the more vulnerable and not contribute to the spread of COVID-19 that was sweeping through our region. Many who live in our county either commute to New York City for work or have grown children who left the city to quarantine with their parents. There were also folks who returned from travel overseas or returned home from college, which all played a part in our rising infection rate.

At the end of March, the sudden surge of positive COVID-19 cases in our area resulted in schools emergently shutting down. We faced a similar urgency in our practice to separate the exposed with those not infected. During those early days, I recall the frustration of trying to help direct care when there were no concrete guidelines. Disappointed at the lack of testing availability, we felt somewhat helpless but pushed on to formulate treatment plans. We endeavored to help our patients and steer the course of their illness to recovery. Our goal was to ward off the need for emergency room visits which may ultimately result in hospitalization and even ICU admissions.

In order to prevent the healthy and especially the more vulnerable patients from contracting COVID-19, and to not be the vector of transmission ourselves, we converted our practice to mostly telehealth services. Fortunately, we were able to do this without needing to close our doors. Of course, there were some bumps as we switched to conducting interviews virtually rather than face-to-face. The adjustment was both on our end as well as our patients’ and it certainly took some getting used to.
At the end of the day, telemedicine provided us the ability to offer care to those needing routine maintenance for their medications and address new issues not related to the coronavirus, while also delivering care to those exposed to and fighting COVID-19. It has been busy but rewarding to be able to meet needs. To avert hospital overload and to prevent medical staff burn out, it was crucial for us to help curve ER visits by treating sick patients from home. Telemedicine gave us the means to do so but we also had a physician available for in-office urgent cases that were not sickness related.

These last few months have been challenging, simultaneously transitioning a busy outpatient practice to essentially all telemedicine while managing four kids. Supervising their “distance learning” was a bit painful. Fortunately, my seventh grader was fairly independent, but the younger ones were easily distracted and needed more direction. The concern was not so much the volume or difficulty of the schoolwork, but so many hours in front of a screen affected their emotional lability and grumpiness. Keeping track of the different Zoom calls was a whole other undertaking. My husband, Dr. Joseph Kim ‘98, who runs his own consulting and continuing medical education company, also had to work from home. Imagine the craziness of all six of us accessing our respective laptops and computers to participate in numerous Zoom meetings throughout the day!

In terms of my kids’ assignments, the best ones were those that had them use their imagination and allowed them to create things. My fourth grader had a final project that had her design her own amusement park. She came up with the rides, foods, etc. My seventh grader had a couple of assignments where she made videos related to the topic they were learning. She actually got our whole family involved in the acting and had a lot of fun filming and editing them. I was pretty impressed with the end product that she did completely by herself.

The biggest benefit of telemedicine in terms of work/life balance is that I can be there in person if I’m needed. Whether it’s helping with getting on a Zoom call or finding a pencil, eraser, paper, etc. or just keeping everyone on task, I am there to oversee and police. I can also help prep breakfast, lunch, or dinner in between calls, whereas before I relied a lot on my mom and my au pair to help when I’m not home. The biggest drawback is probably also the same fact that I’m there in person so I'm easily accessible and often called to help with various things. It seriously feels like I'm working two jobs at the same time. I've gotten pretty good at waving one hand in the air that is out of the Zoom camera's visual field to give hand-signal messages to my kids.

When the school year ended, it felt like a big load was lifted. No more deadlines and required screen time for the kids! Now, after my work calls, I can jump in the pool with my kids instead of checking up on their work, reteaching material, or just making sure things were submitted correctly.

Currently, I am doing telemedicine on Mondays and Tuesdays and going to the office to do in-person visits on the other days. So, we are offering a hybrid model and patients have the option to choose depending on what their need is. We are still working out the kinks. It’s tricky because we have three doctors and soon a fourth will be joining us. There are only so many exam rooms, so we want to be available to our patients without crowding the waiting room and office space.

Information for COVID-19 constantly changes and recommendations still get revised as research and new data pours in. As primary care, our job is to filter out what is relevant and apply it to the care of our patients. This global pandemic is not yet over and although we are now seeing more patients face-to-face for in-office visits, telemedicine is still available. It is essential to have for those who may be more high risk, and convenient for those who do not need to come in person or those who have a hard time getting transportation. Some form of telemedicine will likely be here to stay even as the pandemic resolves. Given the way things look, that resolution may still take