Alumni in the Fight Against COVID-19

A series of spring 2020 updates highlighted three of the many Steppingstone Alumni on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Below, Ifeanyi Anidi ’96, Amanda Mitchell ’93, and Danielle Le Hals ’97 share their stories.

 

“On the Precipice”  

Ifeanyi Anidi ’96, M.D., Ph.D.

Steppingstone Class of 1996
The Roxbury Latin School Class of 2002
Yale University Class of 2006
John Hopkins University Class of 2014

Dr. Ifeanyi Anidi ’96 feels “lucky and blessed” to be caring for patients with COVID-19 in the ICU at the National Institutes of Health. In his work as a pulmonary and critical care medicine fellow, the Steppingstone Alumnus takes care, too, to support families who often haven’t seen loved ones for days on end.

At NIH, he’s also in one of the centers of cutting-edge research, including work on the headline-making antiviral drug, remdesivir. With his own research into immune response to tuberculosis put on hold, he’s weighing how he can help in answering research questions raised by the novel virus. For Ifeanyi, that’s the “question of the hour.”

Inspired by his family’s Nigerian roots, the Roxbury Latin and Yale grad became fascinated with studying diseases endemic to Africa while earning his M.D. and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. His Ph.D. dissertation research involving malaria’s effect on the lungs influenced his ongoing study of TB, the “world’s #1 cause of death” from a single infectious agent, he notes.

As both a clinician and a researcher, he knows that there’s still much to learn.

Amid the pandemic, Ifeanyi’s clinical expertise has brought him to the front lines of patient care and meant a much more active role in communicating with families.

“Everything is changing rapidly,” he says, even how he examines patients. Wearing so much personal protective equipment, for example, he can’t use a stethoscope.

What’s made a lasting impression has been seeing “how quickly people decompensate before our eyes,” going from being reasonably stable to needing intensive support. As he puts it, “we take care of people on the precipice and try to prevent them from crashing.”

It’s emotionally draining, he admits. Knowing he can make a concrete difference in the lives of patients and families keeps him going.

The battle-tested team around him also gets him through. Many of his colleagues have experience combating Ebola and other dangerous outbreaks.

At the end of the day, he’s grateful to come home to his fiancée, who faces her own risks as a pediatrician. He stays close to his four siblings (three of whom are also Steppingstone Alumni)  and parents via their family Zoom calls. He almost missed one Sunday session but, drained as he felt in the moment, he’s thankful that “I got my act together and made it.”

Ifeanyi’s still constantly learning. By nature, he craves structure and routine. In the hospital these days, when something isn’t working, they may need to change course on the fly. “This entire pandemic is a lesson in being adaptable,” he says.

 

“Call to Duty”

Amanda Mitchell ’93, RN, B.S.N.

Steppingstone Class of 1993
The Park School Class of 1996
The Woodward School Class of 1999
Regis College Class of 2003
UMass Boston College of Nursing and Health Sciences Class of 2010

Amanda Mitchell ’93 spends up to 16 hours a day as a nurse and manager on the front lines of the pandemic. Despite the long hours, the Steppingstone Alumna says she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Caring for patients “makes me feel I have a purpose.”

Amanda balances her full-time role as assistant director of nursing at CareOne in Newton with weekend shifts as a nurse in the MGH Emergency Department, her old stomping grounds. As the crisis has deepened, “everything changes daily.”

“We’re learning every day,” she notes. Protocols shift as more becomes known about what’s working and what’s not. By necessity, there’s a lot of trial and error. “This is nothing like the nursing you learned in nursing school,” she adds. “I’ve done more CPR within the last 14 days than I’ve done in my entire 12 years of being an RN.”

At MGH, one of the hardest parts has been seeing how rapidly some patients with COVID-19 can go downhill. “Within 24 hours, they can be fighting to breathe.”

Weekdays at CareOne, a senior care and rehabilitation center, she manages nursing care for a population of predominantly elderly patients, among the most vulnerable to the virus. To keep patients safe, the facility suspended visitation in mid-March. As difficult as some days can be, she finds joy in helping residents know their loved ones are there for them, even if it means seeing them virtually.

If anyone can relate to what they’re feeling, it’s Amanda. To keep safe, her own 14-year-old daughter is staying with Amanda’s sister and her family. For now, they see each other via FaceTime. “My sister will say, ‘I think you went into the wrong profession,” she laughs. But Amanda’s passion for nursing runs deep.

She traces the roots of that passion to the time she spent caring for an aunt in a battle with cancer. Her aunt was like a mom to her, she explains, “God bless her soul.” Near the end of her aunt’s life, Amanda found a deep sense of satisfaction in helping her.

After an initial foray into nonprofit communications, Amanda followed her heart. Her educational path had led her from the Park School and the Woodward School for Girls to earning her B.A. at Regis. She took a leap and completed her B.S.N. at UMass Boston in only 15 months, juggling studies with a job at Boston Medical Center.

More than a decade later, she’s now one of the many healthcare workers putting their own lives on the line. It’s natural to be afraid. At times, the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) has shaken everyone. It may be hard, “but this is what we do.” She shies away from the word hero, saying simply that she feels “called to duty.”

“I get the satisfaction of being the one who’s there for them,” she says, “knowing I’m able to help someone who can’t help themselves.”

 

“All In This Together”

Danielle Le Hals ’97, M.P.H.

Steppingstone Class of 1997
The Winsor School Class of 2003
MIT Class of 2007
UC Berkeley Class of 2009

On the job at Mass General, the pandemic has thrust Danielle Le Hals ’97 into unfamiliar territory of her own. She’s doing her “day job” as executive director for radiation oncology. She keeps her focus on supporting her team and ensuring safe care for their cancer patients. With the “new normal,” she’s adapting to working remotely much of the time.

At the same time, she’s found herself overseeing the logistics of a bold new initiative for decontaminating N95 masks, as covered in the Boston Globe. She’s also jumped in to lead a newly configured team managing other non-monetary donations to aid the hospital during the crisis.

The pace of decisions necessitated by the crisis fits her personality. “I love acting quickly,” she smiles to say.

It’s challenging to keep so many balls in the air not only at work but in all areas of her life, which includes having three kids, ages six months, three, and six years, at home.

Through it all, “I feel lucky to be able to contribute,” she stresses. To Danielle, everything she does supports not only patients but also the thousands of colleagues doing daily life-saving work, “being brave in this moment.”

In a sense, the crisis has taken her back to her roots as a graduate student in public health, being drawn to the concept of affecting care on a macro level. Intrigued by science and medicine since her days at Winsor and MIT, she went on to earn her M.P.H. in health policy and management at the University of California Berkeley.

What’s most discouraging? Danielle asks herself the question and dives into an answer. Locally and globally, disparities in health and access to care are really being highlighted. It’s sobering to see how communities of color and vulnerable populations have been “incredibly disproportionately affected by the disease.”

Still, “the perspective that we’re all in this together really drives me.” It’s been heartwarming to see the outpouring of support for the work of the hospital and its front-line staff. Complete strangers are stepping up, wanting to know how to help. “It’s restored a feeling,” she says, “of how inherently good people are.”