Looking Back. Reflections of a College Health physician who spends her days trying to keep the campus open for in-person classes and sports, even after her boss, the University's President, loses his life to COVID-19.
Spring has finally arrived, and not a minute too soon. I dread daylight savings time every year because I lose an hour of precious, increasingly evasive sleep. The only saving grace of that lost hour of restful slumber is the promise that a sunny renewing Spring is around the corner.
I was in quite a funk when March 14th rolled around in this post-pandemic year. Like many others, I felt derailed and unsettled as we approached the one-year anniversary of the “day the world shut down.” I was woefully behind in getting 2021’s second issue of the Physician Outlook Magazine completed and to the printer. I had been distracted. I had been anxious. I had been too busy to stop and practice gratitude. I had been eating too much. I had not been delegating and leading effectively. I had allowed myself to put too much on my plate. I had not been exercising. I had been “canceled” by colleagues that I highly respected, and I was letting their ignorance get to me. I had been having trouble sleeping, and not surprisingly, I was tired all of the time. I was apathetic. I was self-sabotaging. I was not using my organizational skills. I had been prioritizing the wrong tasks on my list.
Worst of all, I had been letting this negative self-chatter occupy valuable real estate in my brain.
I took a hard, long look inside of myself and realized that a big part of my “funk” was that I was mourning the loss of a man who I had barely met “in real life,” but who had become emblematic of the horrible nightmare that COVID-19 had wreaked across the globe.
This man was my boss.
It turns out that the life and death of Dr. Dennis DePerro, the president of Saint Bonaventure University (where I serve as the Medical Director for the Center for Student Wellness), was in large part the root cause of my mental paralysis. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Christmas Eve, admitted to the hospital 4 days later, put on life support by mid-January, and pronounced dead by March 1st. Dr. DePerro was just a few years older than I am. His two sons are not much older than my own daughter. Like me, a little overweight, but otherwise healthy. Like me, somewhat of a “doubting Thomas” throughout the different stages of the pandemic. He was villainized for traveling out of state for a donor’s meeting in November of 2020, days before we made the difficult decision to send all of our students home due to rising COVID cases. I, too, had traveled out of state for “non-essential” travel.
Dr. DePerro aptly dubbed COVID-19 relentless. His untimely passing is an ironic tragic reminder of this fact.
My boss was a jovial, visionary, charismatic bold martyr who looked COVID in the eye and didn’t let it stop him or his university. Enrollment and retention actually INCREASED during the pandemic as it had during the preceding 3 years of his tenure. He made a commitment to ensure our students would have as normal a college experience as possible despite being in the midst of a global health emergency. He was SO proud that Saint Bonaventure had fared much better than most U.S. colleges in the fall of 2020, maintaining in-person instruction and our Division 1 and NCAA athletes practicing. He lamented that we didn’t make it all the way to Thanksgiving. It was Dr. DePerro’s aplomb and leadership style that brought us through last semester and continues to let us thrive when many other institutions of higher learning are struggling or failing.
At Saint Bonaventure, the fact that I am a physician who has founded a magazine is met with admiration and respect. It is welcomed that I provide internship opportunities to students and that I encourage them to write, edit and contribute content. I am surrounded by brilliant young minds who are pursuing degrees in health, marketing, journalism and who are learning how to become independent autonomous young adults. Like Dr. DePerro had likely experienced a few years prior when he finally achieved his life’s goal of becoming a university president, I felt that I had arrived in Utopia.
A Utopia that got turned on its head in early 2020 when the global pandemic reached our tiny academic community, that turned my “easy job” into a 24/7 nightmare of a rollercoaster ride. A Utopia that ultimately sacrificed the very life of Dr. DePerro, who made the conscious decision to put others before self by leading in person, not hiding in his basement nor behind a computer screen.
His last words (penned in the BonaVenture Magazine in the Winter 2020-21 issue) are eerily beautiful and simultaneously haunting:
“For so many reasons, I’m sure we all wish 2020 could be erased from our memories. However, like so many other years of historical significance, it will change our world in ways we can’t conceive of now. Let’s hope that 2021 will cast far more sunshine upon us.”
As Spring has sprung, I have come to realize that I am blessed to still be standing, to still be breathing and living, creating and sharing. I have much to be grateful for, and I have much that I need to say and do through this magazine. It is my life’s mission to restore the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship, and it is high time to reset my clock and my mindset and enjoy the life and love that surrounds me.