“I’m sure we would all like to go back in time to when an epidemiologist wasn’t in most people’s normal lexicon,” said Dr. Susan Donelan.
She means this past February, which seems like a lifetime ago. Epidemiology — the study of patterns or outbreaks of diseases in hopes of identifying ways of reducing their effects — has been pushed to the forefront by the coronavirus pandemic and has made its practitioners critical to both tackling and providing context to this ongoing public health crisis.
Without knowing it, Susan V. Donelan, MD, medical director of healthcare epidemiology at Stony Brook Medicine, has been preparing for the fervency of this situation for her 20-plus-year career as a clinical physician and expert in infectious diseases, particularly those that are emerging.
Back in the late 1990s when Donelan, who is also an assistant professor of infectious diseases in the Renaissance School of Medicine, was medical director for infection control at Stony Brook University Hospital and Y2K (the year 2000) was fast approaching, she was tasked with creating a bioterrorism preparedness plan when, along with panic about electronic devices ceasing to work, there was great concern regarding the releases of varied infectious agents. While neither mishap occurred, Donelan was thrust into a preparedness race to avert disaster.
Not the typical epidemiologist, Donelan doesn’t have a PhD or a master of public health degree. What she does have, along with an MD and a great deal of ground experience, is a conditional fifth-degree black belt in karate, a practice she began 14 years ago at the age of 47. She is, in fact, a sensei, a teacher of this martial arts form that fosters focus readiness and awareness of surroundings — skills not unlike those required as an emergency preparedness expert.
Donelan, a fellow of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, keeps an eye on what’s going on regionally, nationally and globally. “With a constant seeking of where disease is happening, who’s being affected and how it is spreading, I can work with my Hospital colleagues to create pathways to reduce risk and make some sense of how it’s going to impact us locally,” she said.
And she’s done just that. Repeatedly. She’s prepared for, drilled for and coordinated planning for such public health threats as anthrax and smallpox concerns post-9/11, as well as seasonal and epidemic outbreaks, including the flu, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, H1N1, MRSA and Ebola. In fact, Donelan’s Ebola plan provided the initial guidance for when COVID-19 cases were first seen at Stony Brook University Hospital.
“You take the lessons learned and you move forward with them, each step preparing you for the next, almost like parenthood,” said the mother of three sons, one who is pursuing his PhD and twins who graduated from high school this year.
Professionally, Donelan is rooted in two camps: As a practicing infectious disease physician, her job is to look at what’s best for a particular patient, and as a hospital epidemiologist, her job is to look at what’s best for the entire Hospital community — the staff, patients and visitors. Her dual focus at Stony Brook Medicine allows her to influence that environment with care parameters and safety measures.
As a hospital epidemiologist during a pandemic of historic scale and pace, Donelan is a key advisor on keeping Stony Brook University Hospital safe. She also advises on a state, regional and county level as the medical director of the Metropolitan Area Regional Office–Regional Training Center, which is responsible for public health emergency management for hospitals and long-term care facilities.
“As a society, we are starting to get that what we do as an individual affects the health of the whole,” said Donelan. “Wearing a face covering is actually an altruistic act because we are protecting the other person. By reliably wearing the right sort of covering, I am containing the virus to some degree.”
It’s one tool in the toolbox to minimize the spread, Donelan said, “and all the things we’ve been hearing about — staying home when you’re not feeling well, hand hygiene, physical distancing — clearly work; the downward curve of April in our area has taught us that.”
Donelan said she applies everything she has learned from her work with bacterial and viral infections to the current situation. “We know that it’s not always a one-way curve, but more of a roller coaster effect. And, when a new disease emerges, it can take some time for it to be a treatable chronic disease. Right now, we have to learn to coexist with this virus while at the same time suppressing it with the full arsenal we have available, including medical therapeutics, clinical trials and importantly, our own actions in how we move through this.”
She explained that academic medical centers, such as Stony Brook Medicine, are particularly poised to accelerate the fight due to a vast network of physician-scientists and all those at the front line who identify issues early and quickly pivot to protect those who are more vulnerable.
“I’m a big believer that good things can come out of bad times,” said Donelan. “Preparedness is always a hard sell, but we are learning the tough lessons that we need to be more prepared for pandemics. This has pushed some of us out of our comfort zones and we are embracing technologic solutions like we never have before.”
And the profile of an epidemiologist has changed. “What’s once been behind the scenes has suddenly become cool, with a resurgence of young people wanting to become an epidemiologist: wanting to help people and help society solve some of its problems. And that is a very good thing.”
Click here for more on Dr. Donelan and links to her most recent television appearances.