Being an Asian American healthcare worker means you’re called a hero and villain

May is officially Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrating the journey of Asian Pacific Americans, what they’ve accomplished, and what’s to come. For an entire week, Very Good Light is kicking off a series of Asian American stories, highlighting the future of Asian America. From Generation Z activists, healthcare workers on the front lines, music artists, and more, we’re uplifting Asian stories. We’ve partnered this week with Hate Is A Virus, a grassroots campaign that aims to raise $1 million to businesses affected by COVID-19. Together, we hope to spark conversations, change, and community. After all, the Asian American experience is the American experience. We’re in this together. For more on Hate Is A Virus, go here. 

Asian American healthcare workers

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear scrubs.

Asian American frontline medical professionals are working to save the country despite falling victim to blatant racism.

As quarantine continues and coronavirus-related anxiety reaches fever pitch, hate crimes against Asian communities across the United States have also experienced an upswing. Asian Americans are being targeted, verbally and physically harassed at alarming frequency. It doesn’t help that President Trump’s branding of COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” prompting insults such as, “Go back to China,” or inferring that a Chinese American reporter doesn’t belong. 

For Asian American medical professionals, weathering a pandemic on the frontlines is much more political than simply showing up to save lives. Not only do they work day-in and day-out in conditions they have never before encountered, but forced to confront and ease racial tensions in the process. A new video of Asian American healthcare workers published Tuesday, proving how these professionals are both heralded as heroes but also vilified as well. Another video from TIME tells the story of Dr. Chen Fu, a hospitalist at NYU Langone Medical Center who shared with of his experiences with racism as a health practitioner in a pandemic. “It’s tough to reconcile being both celebrated and villainized at the same time.”

Though Asians make up about 5.6 percent of the population according to the last U.S census, they compose 18% of the medical field according to a 2018 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. They’re sacrificing their lives and putting themselves at risk for the betterment of others.

To celebrate the hardworking individuals in the medical field represented in Asian American communities, we’re uplifting 15 doctors and nurses around the country. We’ve asked them to share with us how they’re navigating this new world and what their important experiences have been. Here are their real stories: 

AJ Angelia , New Jersey, RN

I work as a registered nurse in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital. I graduated from nursing school in May 2019 and have been working as a nurse for 10 months now.

When COVID-19 hit my hospital, it was a shock to the system. Cases were rapidly increasing, the demand for staff shifted between departments, and policies and best practices were constantly changing. In the ICU, we quickly became short-staffed. We had reached our patient capacity. 

We are required to wear surgical masks at all times. When we enter the room of a COVID-19 patient, we must don personal protective equipment for “airborne” precautions, which include: a gown, two pairs of gloves, an N95 mask, and a face shield or goggles. We put on and remove each of these items with each pass into and out of a room. In efforts to preserve PPE (personal protective equipment), other nurses and I try our best to cluster our care so that we can do our job properly while entering the room the least number of times possible.

Being Asian-American during these times has shown how false the Model Minority Myth is as we were swiftly stabbed in the back by Yellow Peril. In the context of being in the medical field as an Asian-American, I have raised my voice louder for both the safety of my colleagues facing COVID-19 head-to-head and my Asian-American brothers and sisters experiencing racism. While I have yet to experience the levels of blatant racism that I have read about — and I hope I never will — I continue to see and hear microaggressions.

Sometimes when I’m in the store to pick something up from work, I often feel that my obvious Asian ethnicity coupled with hospital scrubs marks me as a target. I wonder if the person from down the aisle will be the one to break the silence and say, “Thank you for all that you do” or, “Please don’t come any closer,” with a touch of racial slurs. 

Dagny Zhu, California, MD 

I was born in Shanghai, China, and immigrated with my parents to the U.S. at a young age. I graduated from UCLA college and from Harvard Medical School where I discovered my love for ophthalmology. I now work as a cornea, cataract, and LASIK surgeon as an owner of a practice.

We shut down our clinic and furloughed about 75% of our staff for about one month. I continued to only see urgent patients about two times a week. As a small practice owner, it has been very difficult financially because, without surgeries, our clinic does not generate any revenue, but continues to accumulate high expenses like rent. It’s been especially difficult for my staff as they have had to file for unemployment during this time to get by. Fortunately, we are slowly opening back up as non-urgent surgery restrictions have been lifted in California, but we are continuing to be very cautious and taking multiple safety precautions.

I have had colleagues who have had patients refuse to see them because of their race, so every day, I am self-conscious about how my own patients view me and whether I may experience the same. It’s disheartening to hear about people of Asian descent including children and the elderly being attacked verbally and physically solely based on their race. They have to worry not only about contracting the virus but also about being attacked whenever they leave their homes. 

There’s irony in the situation. Asian Americans make up almost 20% of medical doctors in the country, many of whom are on the front lines risking their own lives to save others. Sadly, many of them have either been personally discriminated against or had their family or friends experience first-hand attacks. Regardless, as physicians, we do not discriminate against who we treat and will continue to provide the best care possible to all our patients. 

Jerry Tsong, New York, MD

I’m an ophthalmologist and retina specialist. I’m Taiwanese-American, both of my parents are immigrants from Taiwan but I was born in New Jersey and grew up there.

I am an attending physician in a private practice in a group of other eye doctors. We operate at the local hospital and cover the ER and consulting services too. COVID-19 has been very stressful to me, my fellow doctors, and my medical teams. We have had to provide eye care to patients with new diagnoses of COVID-19, we worry about getting COVID-19 and spreading it to our loved ones, and as small business owners we worry about keeping our business afloat in the face of severely reduced numbers of patients and lost revenue. 

In March we limited our practice to only seeing emergency patients and patients with unstable eye conditions. Instead of six doctors working full-time, we reduced it to one doctor each day, and for a limited number of patients. We stopped operating except for emergency cases. We have had to deal with shortages of PPE and have had to purchase directly on Ebay and online with a huge mark-up. We reuse masks and provide masks to patients who are not wearing them.

The federal government and other government leaders have not done enough to stand up against Anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. The President and other officials calling it the “Chinese virus” is clearly inciting racism and, in turn, Asian-American discrimination. This is incredibly disturbing and flat out wrong. There is a distinction between the Chinese government and Chinese citizens in America. Just like there is a distinction between the Chinese government and Asian-Americans – totally different groups that should not be lumped together.

As doctors, we are taught to treat everyone with the same compassion and care. I do this every day when I see patients at work. It’s the same with my fellow Asian-American physicians. There’s no hesitation involved. It’s what we’re trained to do. It’s just what’s right. But it’s especially painful to experience anti-Asian-American discrimination now. This is at a time when Asian-Americans make up a significant portion of healthcare workers and are fighting the virus on behalf of all Americans.

Fortunately, I have not had anyone shout racial epithets at me or experienced violence against me. But I know it could happen anytime, anywhere. I live in New York City and I avoid going outside at night, even in “safe” neighborhoods, out of concern for my safety as an Asian-American. This is the first time that I have avoided going out at night in NYC, ever. I am also more careful and more aware of others around me.

Racism towards any one group of Americans is flat out wrong and distinctly un-American. More Americans need to realize that and other minority groups need to come together to promote this. We are all Americans.

 Kimberly Shao, Connecticut, MD

I am a Chinese-Polynesian American. I was born in the States and I grew up in New York. I went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and I am currently in Connecticut doing my dermatology residency.

For dermatologists, limiting face-to-face encounters while still seeing urgent in-person patients in order to steer them away from overcrowding emergency rooms is key. The majority of our patient visits have been through telemedicine, with the exception of 4-5 clinics a week seeing in-person urgent appointments.  We stopped all elective procedures, and surgery has been limited to only melanomas (which are lethal if left untreated), and high-risk squamous cell cancers.

Being in the medical field as an Asian could mean I am tasked to treat patients who hold bigoted opinions. It means that I may be confronted with harrowing news of members of my ethnicity being attacked, while I have no other moral choice other than to maintain my job and oath to help others. It means that some Asian health care workers, especially those in major cities, may be harassed on public transport on their way to risk their lives to save others. 

I called a patient the other week to let him know we needed to change his appointment to a phone visit and reschedule his in-person appointment for a later date. He became frustrated and irate. Telling me that our clinic was making a big deal out of nothing, that this “China virus is hocus pocus.” Questioning how we could be real doctors. Though I introduced myself as Dr. Shao, I wondered if he would have said the same things to my face seeing as I was Asian. The next day we saw a woman with a diffusely pruritic rash. She thanked us profusely for seeing her and for what we do as physicians. It’s definitely a strange time to be an Asian doctor. On one end, doctors are being applauded for their sacrifice. On the other end, Asians have increasingly become the target of hate crimes.

It hit home for me when it started affecting my grandma. She normally goes to a senior center in NYC for Asian women. Obviously they had to put that on hold during the pandemic, but her senior center friends stayed in touch via WeChat. They would share stories – many about the uptick in verbal and physical hate crimes towards Asians. My grandmother became afraid to leave her apartment – just as scared of the virus as she was of the possibility of harassment.

This is all while racism against Black people runs rampant in China. Chinese-Americans have landed in the middle, and as a result, this has stirred even more negativity towards Asian minorities. I do not condone xenophobia of any nature. But it is disheartening to see Asian Americans here, many who have and continue to contribute to the health and wellness of our country be demonized. 

Leslie Kim, New York, MD & MPH


I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and emigrated to NYC when I was one-year-old. I’m a double board-certified facial plastic surgeon and otolaryngologist (ENT). I practice exclusively in aesthetic and reconstructive procedures of the face, head, and neck.

Being a sub-specialist, I have been largely “sidelined” by the COVID-19 pandemic.  I stopped seeing patients in the clinic and doing elective surgeries in mid-March. For the past seven weeks, my practice has been reduced to virtual visits, post-op/urgent clinic visits, and cancer reconstruction cases. However, it is well-known that otolaryngologists or ENTs are one of the specialists at the highest risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19 due to our work in the nose/mouth/throat. So we have had to take extra precautions in surgeries and when seeing patients. 

COVID-19 has also impacted me because my mom is a registered nurse on Long Island, NY.  She has been on the frontlines, working tirelessly to treat all/only COVID-19 patients. She ran out of PPE and I had to mail her some. Despite this, she messages me after every shift to make sure WE are doing okay.  She is my personal hero and now has been a hero to many.

My heart breaks, hearing about fellow Asian-Americans struggle with racism and xenophobia during this novel coronavirus pandemic. Being attacked for no reason. It is not something I have personally experienced but I find myself being more vigilant these days.  So many of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants who came to this country to seek a better life and career in the land of opportunity. Now, many of us have become physicians and other health care workers who work so hard to give back to our communities. 

Especially in times of crisis, there is no place for hate. We are all human and underneath the color of our skin and our appearance, we are all the same people.  We all seek to live our best life of love, health, success, and happiness. We all struggle similarly in this pursuit with heartbreaks, losses, failures, disease, and death. Yet, our differences are what make this world, and this country in particular, so wonderful and interesting. 

Victor Liou, Massachusetts, MD

My parents immigrated from Taiwan and I was born and raised in the Midwest. My fellowship training is in ophthalmic plastic surgery, a small but amazing subspecialty of ophthalmology. We perform surgeries on the eyelid, orbit, and tear duct system as well as facial cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.

To protect the patients and staff, our hospital has postponed all “non-essential” surgeries and appointments. This means we are only seeing urgent issues that might potentially result in blindness. For non-urgent issues, I have had to find ways to help the patient virtually rather than in person. COVID-19 has forced me to make these decisions with a blurry photo or pixelated video call. Patients are afraid to come to the hospital because they do not want to contract the virus. I often give out my email address and phone number so patients can update me on their symptoms from home.

Still, we occasionally have patients who are very sick and need to stay in the hospital. I must examine them face to face. Early during the pandemic, COVID-19 test results took almost a week to come back. It was nerve-wracking to enter a room of a potentially infected patient. I was constantly worried there was a leak in my N-95 face mask. After exiting the room, I would wash my hands three times, my face once, and then use antiseptic. I was not worried about overkill. Fortunately, obtaining COVID-19 results is much faster now.

Though I am hopeful for a brighter future, we cannot expect discrimination and ignorance to cease overnight. It is important for us Asian-American physicians to recognize that our contributions are a product of not only our medical training but also our personal histories. We should acknowledge not only the expertise we provide but also the diversity in our understanding of each person and our approach to patient care. Both parts coexist and should be celebrated together.

Ari , Pennslyvania, RN

I am a second degree BSN, which means that I earned my first bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field (for me it was hospitality management) and then applied to an accelerated BSN program. 

I am not currently working in a hospital. I finished my ABSN program in December 2019 and passed my RN board exam at the end of April. Since my program ended, I have been volunteering my time with the Medical Reserve Corps to conduct COVID-19 tests. My husband is a physician and is also a frontline worker. We are anxious over every occasional cough or tickle in our throat. We have both been feeling a certain level of anxiety because of the pandemic. We are worried about our family in CA, each other, and our own health. 

It is difficult to put into words. Violence against Asians in America has been glossed over for decades. I would encourage any Asian American who does not know the name Vincent Chin to Google his name and learn his story. My message to other Asian American medical workers is to try and rise above hatred. We are integral parts of our country’s response to COVID-19. We play a vital role and no one can take that away from us. We are Americans, period. Pity those who throw hateful words at us because they are being un-American. 

I was called racial slurs in broad daylight by someone a few weeks ago after I had come off a string of days conducting COVID-19 tests. I feel that as much as all healthcare workers (HCWs) are celebrated right now, there needs to be equal energy directed at supporting HCWs of Asian descent. I implore HCWs of every ethnic background to support their Asian American colleagues and call out problematic speech and behavior when they see it (in a safe way, of course). 

Shim Ching , Hawaii, MD

I’m a board-certified plastic surgeon. I was born in Japan but was raised in Vancouver, Canada. I was trained in Canada and moved to the U.S 15 years ago. I specialize in cosmetic plastic surgery.

I no longer work at the hospital, but we shut down our private practice for five weeks for the good of our community. I do feel fortunate in that I have not experienced racism in our current situation. The population of Hawaii is predominantly Asian so we are sheltered from those concerns.  

Although the origin of COVID-19 may have been from China, blaming people of Asian heritage for this pandemic is ignorant and wrong. I would hope stories like Dr. Chen Fu will raise awareness of this issue and prevent this from happening to Asian American doctors and healthcare workers.

Scott Fujimoto , California, DO

I am a Japanese-American, born and raised near Philadelphia. I am an interventional radiologist, meaning I perform minimally-invasive image-guided therapies for anything from oncology to vascular disease. 

We have had to postpone many outpatient procedures to minimize risk to HCWs and at-risk patients. Unfortunately, this often means that patients with the diagnosis of cancer or potentially have cancer will have to wait for their diagnosis and treatment. However, much of our procedures are inpatient or considered urgent so we have remained pretty busy. Because of the essential nature of our service, we tried to split our teams as much as possible to prevent a mass exposure from causing illness or quarantine that would limit the availability of people throughout the hospital. Procedures done on COVID-19 positive patients are done at bedside if possible, or in a converted negative pressure cardiovascular lab in the operating room if fluoroscopy is required. 

Thankfully, I have not encountered any personal attacks or discrimination. I have had colleagues that have been heckled leaving the hospital or who have had patients themselves make comments about their race. The doctor who could save your life might end up being Asian, and we will treat you compassionately no matter your race.

The thing that struck me most about Dr. Fu’s story is the racism he encountered when he was in scrubs obviously on his way to the hospital. I have treated all kinds of people, from inmates to white supremacists, and everyone is respectful to their doctors because they know their lives are in the doctor’s hands. Now, with this irrational fear of Asians, that line of respect is being blurred. I don’t need to be treated like a hero, but I do need to be able to do my job without fear for my safety.   

Also, as a Japanese-American whose family was impacted by the internment during World War II, it has saddened me that there have been calls on Asians to increase their patriotism. This mindset led to the assimilation of Japanese-Americans to the point where their unique culture was lost. I don’t believe that we need to prove our American-ness, we are just as American as everyone else.  

Katrina von Kriegenbergh , California, MD

I am the daughter of Filipino immigrants. My parents immigrated in the ’70s during the large healthcare worker immigration- my father is a general surgeon who was educated in the Philippines, but completed his residency in the US. I am a double board-certified pain management physician and anesthesiologist

Prior to the pandemic, I was doing outpatient chronic pain management 90-95% of the time and surgery center anesthesia half a day a week. I performed injections and minimally invasive surgery for pain from the low back, neck, abdomen, pelvis, etc. Since the pandemic, I joined a group of anesthesiologists to form the invasive lines team to take care of COVID-19 patients

Some people have targeted Asian and Asian-Americans because the first outbreak of the disease was in Wuhan, China. I personally have not experienced anything, but I have read about Chinese and Chinese Americans being physically assaulted for not wearing a mask or for simply being Asian and may have also endured racial slurs. 

Many people are thankful that we continue to work and we will continue as long as we need to. Honestly, many healthcare workers, including myself, are uncomfortable with the “hero” title. I feel like I have a specialized skill set as an anesthesiologist that is of great use, especially during this time. However, I am merely showing up and doing my job. I am fortunate to have appropriate PPE at my hospital. I realize this is not the case everywhere. I feel like we are also being villainized when we try to give guidelines that people do not want to hear, especially regarding how and when to reopen the country. 

Micah Yu , California, MD

I am Chinese American and I decided to become a rheumatologist because of my own disease. A rheumatologist mainly treats arthritis and autoimmune disease. My struggles with my own disease have motivated me to help others and empathize with those who are dealing with the same medical problems.

My office has stopped all procedures and have switched to telemedicine. I am taking care of more coronavirus patients on top of taking care of rheumatology patients while in the hospital.

Being Asian-American in the medical field has not changed much for me. However, some of my colleagues have had racist comments made towards them just because they were Asian. It is hard being Asian-American at this time even though we are taking care of coronavirus in the hospital as we also have to fight the racist virus outside the hospital. Hearing about racist comments and hate crimes towards other fellow Asians in the USA has been heartbreaking.

It is very hard being an Asian-American doctor at this time. We are helping fight this virus in the hospital but at the same time when we are out of the hospital, people see us as Asians and possibly linked to the coronavirus despite the fact that we are doctors fighting the same battle that everyone else is fighting. 

Lyly Nguyen , California, MD

I am Vietnamese-American and I started my career as a general surgeon and am specializing in plastic surgery. Soon, I will be in my last year of plastic surgery fellowship.

During COVID, my plastic surgery program, as well as my institution, took great measures to decrease exposure to its staff. We decreased to half staff and alternated weeks on and off. As a plastic surgery fellow, many of our elective cases were canceled to maintain safety of our patients and hospital staff, however any urgent reconstructive cases still continued keeping us busy. 

I’m fortunate to not have experienced any racism or negative remarks firsthand. However, I have heard countless attacks or comments to fellow physicians, some risking their health and safety on the frontlines. Hearing these accounts always makes you concerned about how other people perceive your external appearance even if they haven’t outwardly expressed it. This looming fear or anxiety is unprecedented, something that I never felt I had to worry about before.  

I worry about how my race will affect how my patients perceive me and how it will affect their trust in me, not because of my skill or intelligence but because of my background. I am lucky and hopeful that I will never have to experience that. 

Christy Chen , Minnesota, MD

I was born in Shanghai, China, and grew up in Michigan. I have now been on staff at Mayo Clinic for six years, taking care of patients in the outpatient setting and nursing homes while educating learners on all levels including medical students, residents, and fellows.

COVID-19 impacted my outpatient practice and nursing home practice. In an effort to keep our patients and community safe, many long term care facilities were on strict lockdown, which limited our ability to care for them face to face. We needed to quickly adapt to these changes and discover other ways to take care of them including telemedicine options, which unfortunately had its limitations when dealing with multiple chronic health issues and complex care coordination needs. Despite maximizing our efforts, the infection still made its way into these vulnerable populations across the nation which was very devastating to see. It reminded us how ill-prepared we are for situations like these, not just in the hospital setting, but across the community and especially in our older adults. 

For me, being an Asian American in the medical field during this time is the same as it has always been. We are a part of a team, and that has not changed. We are all critical players despite our background and race, and we should not let the increase in discrimination downplay our skills, efforts, or worth. Our goals as healthcare workers are uniform- we want to keep our patients healthy, safe, and alive. We want to do everything in our power to meet these goals, which do not discriminate. Racial attacks may have increased, but I believe this is largely driven by fear and misconception. I still choose to believe that deep down, people have good intentions and hatred or fear can only be broken through building good relationships, listening to each other, and taking care of each other with kindness. 

It saddens me to wonder if the perception of Asian-Americans has changed permanently because of this pandemic. It saddens me, even more, to recognize that there are many people who feel discriminated against in some way every day of their lives and were born into this. Discrimination and racism of any kind should not exist, but the roots run deep and span many generations across many cultures. It is my hope that we will continue to break this mentality throughout time.

Austin L. Chiang , Pennsylvania, MD

I’m a gastroenterologist sub-specializing in advanced endoscopy. I’m an assistant professor of medicine at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia and I’m also the director of the endoscopic bariatric program and chief medical social media officer for the institution.

We aim to minimize exposure to our patients and staff, conserve resources while making sure that people who need urgent procedures can still get the care they need. We’ve had to postpone non-urgent procedures and reconfigure our schedules so we can take turns caring for patients in the hospital. We’ve also had to figure out our protocols for COVID testing and equipping ourselves with appropriate protective gear when encountering patients. Additionally, we are having to anticipate how to reopen our practice to prioritize those who need immediate attention.

It has been an interesting dichotomy. I have encountered one instance where someone shouted a racially-motivated coronavirus reference at me despite the fact that I was in medical garb. Fortunately, I consider Philadelphia to be a diverse city, and I can only hope that this translates to acceptance and understanding. Health professionals regardless of race are working hard to protect and treat our patients. It’s a difficult and stressful time for everyone, so we could all benefit from exercising a little more empathy through all this.

Daniel Sugai , Washington, MD & FAAD

I am a board-certified dermatologist in private practice. I am originally from Oahu and did my medical school training there at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine where I met my wife in our first year of medical school. We both moved to Boston to do our residency training. I did my internship in internal medicine and my dermatology residency at Harvard Medical School. My wife, Dr. Erina Sugai, is a hospitalist physician in the Seattle area on the frontlines battling COVID-19.

When the pandemic started, we immediately responded by cutting our outpatient clinic time to a small fraction where I was only working 1-2 half days a week and limiting my practice to high-risk medication follow-ups and emergency cases in order to lessen the burden on our local ERs and Urgent Care centers. I had diagnosed fast-growing skin cancers and helped treat serious skin infections and blistering rashes during the pandemic. Thankfully the curve has flattened, and we are able to slowly open up clinic hours to more patients.

My wife and I are Asian-American physicians and I have personally experienced racism during my medical training years before this pandemic. Thankfully we have not experienced racial discrimination or hate during this pandemic but I am very concerned for my fellow Asian-Americans. Our healthcare workers are on the frontlines fighting this virus and caring for our communities yet are facing racism outside of the hospital.  There is no way hate will be the answer to these dark times; only love will heal us eventually. It will take time to recover from this but we will get through this together as a community.

We as physicians have a duty to our communities, to serve and put our families and our own health on the line but the public should not take that for granted regardless of race. The profession of medicine is a noble one but I feel that it also keeps us from standing up for ourselves to not come off as “unprofessional” or “insensitive.” Physician burnout is a real thing that has led many to suicide and depression. Moreover, physicians are facing pay cuts during this pandemic despite risking their lives every day. Physicians do not deserve nor have the time or energy to battle the racial hate that is inflicted on them outside of the hospital — on the subway or in the grocery store. We need to not only flatten the curve of infections but also flatten the curve of hate during these dark times.

 

 

 

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