Photo of Zheying Li in a graduation cap and gown
Alumni Focus

MCPHS Responds: Zheying Li’s Courage on the Coronavirus Front Lines

Photo of Zheying Li in a graduation cap and gown

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers all over the world have been called upon to face new risks and unprecedented challenges. They have continued to do their jobs—and more—in the most trying of circumstances. As a healthcare education university, MCPHS has seen students, alumni, faculty, and staff perform bravely on the front lines in a variety of healthcare roles. We want to shine a light on some of these individuals and their work in the time of coronavirus. We encourage you, members of the MCPHS community, to share your frontline stories using the hashtag #HeatlhcareStartsHere.

When Zheying Li, ’18, graduated from MCPHS with a Bachelor of Science in Premedical and Health Studies and a minor in biology, she had her heart set on medical school but her mind set on preparation. Knowing that medical school would be a long and challenging road, she wanted to spend a year gaining as much clinical experience as possible before applying. Little did she know how “up close and personal” her clinical experience would become in April 2020.

Because of a strong interest in surgery, Zheying became a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in the Cardiac Surgery Unit at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, a Tufts teaching hospital. She had been working there for nearly a year when the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts began to spike.

Privy to the experiences of her family in China, the first country affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Zheying says she knew how bad things could get. As the COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts continued to climb, Zheying’s family urged her to quit her job at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center. But rather than focus on her own health risks, Zheying decided to focus on how she could use her premedical education to help others: “What I learned and what I studied—that medical knowledge—I should practice that, especially during this time. They really need healthcare workers, so why not me?” Instead of quitting her job in the cardiac surgery unit, Zheying signed up for a second job—one on the healthcare front lines. She admits that she did not tell her family of her plans to work directly with COVID-19 patients.

The call to serve, or rather the email, came to Zheying from Mass General Brigham. In response to the critical shortage of hospital beds and staff, Mass General Brigham was converting the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center into a temporary medical center called Boston Hope. Partnered with Boston Health Care for the Homeless, the office of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, and the office of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Mass General Brigham succeeded in opening a thousand-bed medical center for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms on April 10th, 2020. Since Zheying had worked as a research assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital when she was an undergraduate student in the Longwood Medical Area, she received an email about the need for healthcare workers at Boston Hope prior to its opening. Upon submitting her application, she was immediately hired.

The swiftness of Zheying's hire (she applied on the Friday Boston Hope opened and started on the following Tuesday) impressed the gravity of the situation. She planned to work at the temporary medical center for two months; however, it was only one month before she contracted the coronavirus herself.

Zheying’s work at Boston Hope entailed everything from delivering PPE as needed across the expansive center, setting up the “rooms” with oxygen tanks, checking patients’ vital signs, and assisting patients with their daily activities. Her experience checking patients’ oxygen saturation in the cardiac surgery unit at St. Elizabeth’s prepared her well, as this became part of her daily routine at Boston Hope. Since oxygen saturation is indicative of a patient’s respiratory condition, and the coronavirus targets the respiratory system, oxygen saturation can be used to measure the severity of a patient’s COVID-19 symptoms. When she contracted the coronavirus, Zheying says she used this medical knowledge to test her own oxygen saturation by doing a light workout in her home every day.

With an educated understanding of the contagiousness of the virus, Zheying was diligent in practicing hygiene at home. Before she contracted the coronavirus, she kept everything from the two medical centers at which she worked separate, from stethoscopes to scrubs, and she sanitized everything she touched, including her shoes. That none of her roommates contracted the virus is a tribute to how vigilant Zheying was in her efforts to prevent its spread. Meanwhile, her colleagues would call her with updates on how many more people were infected back at work. “It was really sad, really stressful,” she says. “I got a phone call every day. They would tell me [when] the patients in Room 21 passed away...the patients in Room 24 passed away, and then in the end, all the patients in the CSU passed away.” Her colleagues also contracted it, experiencing loss of taste and smell, and a surgeon even suffering “COVID toe”.

Zheying recalls feeling anxious to get back to work, especially since her symptoms were so mild compared to those of her colleagues: “If I hadn’t been [working] with COVID patients, I wouldn’t have thought I had COVID. The symptoms were so mild; only a sore throat for several days, then I felt like I had no symptoms.” But despite her symptoms being mild-to-nonexistent, Zheying continued to test COVID-positive for weeks. Twice a week, car-less and unable to use public transportation due to the status of her previous test results, Zheying would trek 30 minutes to her hospital’s testing site. She took a total of six tests before she was COVID-free. By the time she was cleared, her Optional Practical Training (OPT)—a work authorization for international students in the United States—had expired.

In addition to Zheying’s desire to help the community with her premedical skills, she had been drawn to the pandemic front lines because of the unique learning opportunity it offered. “I want to be a doctor, so it’s a really good time to see: if this kind of emergency happens, could I [manage] that?” By shadowing doctors and nurses during the pandemic, Zheying saw how important the dynamic of a medical team is to patient outcomes. The surge of COVID-19 cases caused quick turnovers of the rooms at Boston Hope, which required teamwork and flexibility from the healthcare staff. Likewise, there were times when several healthcare workers would be out sick, leaving the clinic shorthanded. These situations emphasized the value of each healthcare worker because everyone had to be used to their maximum ability. Aside from her experience observing the importance of bedside manner and communication within healthcare teams firsthand, Zheying said that the Premedical and Health Studies course “Interpersonal Communication” was useful in preparing those soft skills necessary for a career in healthcare.

Now that she has satisfied her craving for clinical experience, Zheying is currently working toward a master’s degree in physiology at Georgetown University to further her research experience before applying to medical school. The lessons Zheying learned working at two medical centers during a pandemic will no doubt be advantageous to her through medical school and her medical career beyond.