New Jersey doctor speaks to Harker community about working on front lines of COVID-19 pandemic


Lucy Ge

Dr. Akanksha Kumar used slides as a part of her talk about her experiences working on a COVID-19 team. She is a family medicine physician at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey.

by Lucy Ge, Winged Post Asst. News Editor

Family medicine physician Dr. Akanksha Kumar spoke to 63 Harker students and faculty via Zoom during long lunch on Friday about her experience working on a COVID-19 team at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. 

With this speaker event, organized by Riyaa Randhawa (10), Dr. Kumar was able to share challenges that many members of the medical industry are enduring right now and spread a message of hope to the upper school.

The Robert Wood Hospital has taken care of at least 893 COVID-19 patients, 596 of whom have recovered. Like many around the world, the hospital experienced shortages of resources due to the pandemic.

“It’s easy to think that we would just have enough for all these patients, but you don’t anticipate having as much of a need,” Dr. Kumar said. “You don’t anticipate that almost every patient that now starts to walk through the hospital doors is going to need some kind of respiratory support. So it’s not surprising that we ran out of equipment.”

“There’s always a silver lining. There’s a humanity aspect of this that I think has been what keeps me going most days. If I didn’t have my colleagues and people that were in it with me, it would be hard to keep going.””

— Dr. Akanksha Kumar

Besides a scarcity of respiratory equipment like ventilators, the hospital staff also dealt with a drastic shortage of personal protective equipment. Dr. Kumar and her team members wore the same N-95 mask on 12-hour shifts for seven days. The CDC recommends that an N-95 mask should be worn no longer than eight hours. 

There were also gown shortages. The last time Dr. Kumar was on the COVID-19 shift, she and her team were told to start collecting trash bags to use as gowns. 

But the difficulties of the pandemic extend beyond supply shortages for those working in health care, as the coronavirus has forced many medical professionals to stay away from their loved ones. When Dr. Kumar knew that she would be exposed to coronavirus patients, she immediately thought about her family.

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, so nobody can be at my house with me. I have to make sure that everybody is shipped off somewhere and safe because I don’t want to expose anyone inadvertently by bringing something home,’” Dr. Kumar said.

As part of the team that runs the residency program at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, she also thought about her residents, many of whom live with older family members. To prevent infection, college housing dorms were opened for health care workers in the COVID-19 teams.

As a result of the exhaustion from long shift hours and the grief of losing patients and colleagues, the coronavirus has taken a significant toll on health care professionals.

To cope with the situation, Dr. Kumar finds strength in working together with her team members. 

“There’s always a silver lining. There’s a humanity aspect of this that I think has been what keeps me going most days,” she said. “If I didn’t have my colleagues and people that were in it with me, it would be hard to keep going.”

Going forward, Dr. Kumar believes that the development of a vaccine would be the most promising step towards treating COVID-19. Hospitals are already running clinical trials and giving patients drugs like remdesivir, an antiviral medication that may be effective against coronavirus.

At the end of the presentation, science department chair Anita Chetty thanked her for sharing her perspective and for serving as a doctor during a pandemic.

“[Dr. Kumar is] incredibly courageous and such an inspiration to our students,” Chetty said. 

Sophomore Alina Yuan expressed similar sentiments.

“Hearing Dr. Kumar talk put things in perspective for me, and I found the talk interesting and eye-opening,” Alina said. “Something that stood out to me was when she talked about the lack of supplies and the measures that the health care professionals took to conserve their equipment.”