Western Alumni

Residency reflections

Arthur Kwok, BSc’09, MSc’12, shares experiences from the frontlines

By Adam Stanley

Arthur Kwok

Arthur Kwok returned home from another 12-hour shift at the hospital, stripping off the day’s emotions along with his clothes, before entering the shower.

And then he broke down.

It was a scene that played out, over and over, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as Kwok, BSc’09, MSc’12 (Biology), worked the frontlines during his residency at CentraState Medical Center, a hospital associated with Rutgers University in Freehold, N.J.

He helped numerous patients battle the virus, while trying to stay healthy himself, dealing with scenarios one cannot truly prepare for, and telling many families a loved one didn’t make it.

But he chose this path.

As a physician, the number one thing you do is help people. These last few months have shown that as difficult as it was to assist patients navigating COVID-19, it was something he had to do.

“If you’re a soldier, you go fight a war. If you’re a physician, when shit hits the fan, you step up,” Kwok said.

The Markham, Ont. native had no plans to be a doctor when he first arrived at Western, drawn by the same tight-knit community feeling that kept him here to pursue his master’s degree.

And while he enjoyed research done at both the undergraduate and graduate level, it was his desire to help people
directly that saw him apply to medical school.

Kwok attended St. George’s University General Hospital in Grenada before doing clinical rotations in Florida and New York. He then landed his top choice for residency: Rutgers University.

Despite the quality of his academic training, Kwok said nothing compares to the education he received on the job since the dawn of the pandemic.

“As a family physician and working in a hospital, we’re used to giving bad news,” Kwok said. “People pass away all the time, though not at this rate. The conversations we’ve had to have and the decisions we’ve had to make are very difficult.”

Kwok took to journaling his experience during the pandemic as a therapeutic escape.

He was on an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) rotation when the first confirmed COVID-19 case came through the hospital. With only 26 ICU beds, resources – especially ventilators – were scarce.

“It was difficult. It was overwhelming,” he said. “You’re scared.”

He journaled about an elderly woman who was not going to make it. Her son, an EMT physician himself, was encouraged to try to change her ‘code’ to allow for a natural death. The son was reluctant, because the ‘no visitor’ policy would prevent his two sisters from seeing their mother before she passed away. Kwok broke the rule, and penned these thoughts on watching the sisters see their mother one last time:

“I led the two sisters upstairs to the Critical Care Unit (CCU). Stares of disapproval from some melted away as they approached the room. They were not allowed in. But they mourned from the door. Tears fogging up their face shields. A gloved hand on the CCU room window, reaching out to her deceased mother, but separated by the isolation.”

Then it was back to the business at hand. “We got the ventilator back and had to immediately move it to someone else,” Kwok said.

Another story brought Kwok into the national spotlight. Seven members of the Fusco family – a large, local family from Freehold, N.J. – contracted the virus at a family dinner. Four members of the family died, with Rita Fusco-Jackson, 55, being the first in the family to pass, and the second recorded death due to COVID-19 in New Jersey. Two of Rita’s brothers, Vincent and Carmine also died, along with Grace Fusco, the family matriarch.

Two other Fusco family members were in the ICU for 30 days, only making it out after being intubated. There is a high mortality rate associated with that procedure and Kwok said it would have been easy to give up on them.

“But we maintained continuous, meticulous management, never gave up on them and that’s why I would consider this a success story,” he said.

The family’s story was on TV for a month as the country grew vested in their care and recovery—a “surreal” experience for Kwok.

When Kwok wrapped up his time in Freehold, there were approximately 10 COVID-19 patients left in the hospital and just a couple in the ICU. The initial surge did slow down, but the virus remained a constant fight for him and his fellow front-line doctors and nurses.

While he looks forward to working as a family physician in Atlantic City come November, he will never forget his residency and how he was buoyed by support he received at home and abroad.

He watched members of the community bring gifts of food, masks, and 3D-printed face shields, and local chefs prepare and drop off hundreds of meals at a time at the hospital. The fire department, police officers, and some ambulance services drove up to the hospital one day, sirens blazing in support. And he had countless messages from Canada.

But the people who survived the virus from his hospital – including Steven Barlotta, a saxophonist in the band of New Jersey’s favourite son, Bruce Springsteen – were reason enough to feel uplifted.

“There’s no substitute for seeing someone walk out of a hospital, honestly,” he said. “The satisfaction of seeing someone come through and making it, that’s what makes it worth it.”