Interviews from the Frontline
Last month, New York Zen Center Assistant to the guiding teachers Mahyar Hassid interviewed sangha member Dr. Fernando Kogen Kawaii—Program Director of the Palliative Medicine Fellowship at New York Presbyterian Queens and Assistant Professor of Medicine for the Weill Medical College/Cornell University—about his experiences as a physician during the coronavirus pandemic.
MH: What are you up to these days?
FKK: I stepped up as a volunteer as a hospitalist, which is a job that I used to practice nine years back. As a Covid-19 hospitalist, I’m trying to manage the patients that come to the floor, giving them oxygen and antibiotics, treating their medical conditions such as dehydration and infections, trying to save them.
MH: What was it like becoming a hospitalist again?
FKK: It was very ironic that after nine years of doing palliative care, I was responding to cardiac-respiratory arrests, respiratory failures and trying to help patients. It wasn’t that I didn’t like being a hospitalist [back then], but that there was such a need for palliative care that I dedicated my career to teaching people about that. But during this time as a hospitalist, I actually feel like I am reconnecting with myself.
MH: Have you experienced anything like this before?
FKK: One advantage that I have is that I trained in the largest hospital in Latin America (Sao Paulo, Brazil) at a time when it had 2,200 beds and there were dozens of deaths every day. I was a resident there in the ER. As a young doctor, it was kind of traumatizing, but it trained me to be focused in a war zone! But I never expected that I would experience a war zone in my home city of New York.
MH: And how did you handle your own diagnosis?
FKK: You know, I’m a highly energetic guy. I can usually sleep five hours a night, and I jump out of bed and can take on the world. But I felt SO tired. I would sleep thirteen hours a day and would still wake up tired. I had shortness of breath even with minimal walking, and also coughing and body aches; I was completely not myself. I was still reviewing charts and doing family meetings, but it was very challenging as I did not have my full energy.
MH: What is your attitude towards the situation now?
FKK: It’s not that I am 100% immune. There is a chance that I could be re-infected. I am usually a fearless guy, but now that I’ve had the virus and am likely more immune, I am stepping up to do the most difficult cases where the risk for infection is high. I am, of course, using all the protective equipment, but it may be a blessing in disguise in that I can step up for my colleagues.”
MH: How did you feel supported by the sangha?
FKK: To hear my name being recited during merits and people praying for my health was very encouraging! People reached out and made me feel that I was not alone. I did participate in some of the Zoom sessions with the Zen Center, though I was sleeping during some of them!
But most importantly, all of the Foundations training is about bearing witness to suffering. So I wasn’t trying to fix my disease. I accepted that it sucked and that I couldn’t work and I didn’t fight it.
Also, the idea of being in service helped me. I was trying to help others even when I was sick.
MH: Any final thoughts?
FKK: As I walk to the hospital every day, as I put on my white coat, I do a chant. This is my ritual. My white robe is the teaching and the reminder to serve my patients when I can, but also to bear witness to their suffering when we cannot fix them.
Because of the virus, during this time families cannot visit their loved ones, those who are not going to make it. I get them onto FaceTime and encourage them to say “Thank you,” “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” “Goodbye,” and even “I forgive you.” Families have been calling me back after their family members die, saying, “Thank you for what you did for my family. I’m never going to forget it.”
This I learned from the Zen Center: To accept what is, rather than to try to fix everything.