President of the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Salerno on #TeaWithMrsG

May 07, 2020

Cynthia Germanotta is president and co-founder of Born This Way Foundation (BTWF), created with her daughter Lady Gaga. Born This Way Foundation supports the mental health and wellness of young people, empowering them to build a kinder, braver world. Cynthia is also a World Health Organization (WHO) Ambassador for Mental Health.

This story took place in United States

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President of the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Judith “Judy” Salerno joins Cynthia for a #TeaWithMrsG conversation about kindness in the health care system, how she supports families, and a special note to mothers and mother figures working the front lines during this global pandemic. Judy is a mother of three who most recently, came out of clinical retirement to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. She works as a liaison between medical providers and families of patients with the disease at one of the largest public hospitals in New York City. Full transcript below.

Mrs. G: Hello everyone, and welcome back to tea time! I’m so honored to have my friend, Dr. Salerno (whom I call Judy), join me for some tea this afternoon. Judy is a mother of three and the President of the New York Academy of Medicine. She leads its strategic vision to advance health equity, and most recently came out of clinical retirement to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. She works as a liaison between medical providers and families of patients with the disease at one of the largest public hospitals in New York City. Judy, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to share with me today. I would love to start with you. As the President of the New York Academy of Medicine and a mother volunteering your time to support an overburdened healthcare system – simply, how are you today?

Dr. Salerno: Thank you, Cynthia. It is a real pleasure to be with you today. I’m doing fine. You know, it really is a wonderful gift that I have a skill set that’s so needed during this pandemic and that I can give. It really makes me feel at the end of each day like I’ve accomplished something. But I know it’s hard. Each of us has something that we can give to this fight, but for me, it was my particular skill set. So, to be able to do that and to be able to help people all day long really is very, very rewarding. 

Mrs. G: It’s also just so vital, and all of us are very grateful to you for doing that. And you know, at Born This Way Foundation we work with young people every day to inspire them to build this kinder and braver world that my daughter envisions. You made an incredibly brave choice to return to work after retirement. Can you share with our young people and viewers why that decision was important? 

Dr. Salerno: Well, I really felt that as I mentioned, that I had skills that I had something that was truly needed in this fight. I just felt that I had to step up. And I talked about it with my children, and they were a little reluctant to tell you the truth because they said the bravest thing you might do is still be our mom for a long time and not risk your life by going into a hospital. But I looked at it a little bit differently, and we talked about it. We understood that this is all about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in very uncertain times. We all have to do what we can do best to be there in the fight because this is a really incredible enemy we’re fighting, COVID. But it’s gonna take all of us doing what we can do best to win this battle. 

Mrs. G: Yes, it really is and you know for our young viewers, sometimes life sends you things that were unexpected, and this is one that came your way. So I think that’s really a role model to the young people that we deal with – really an example of just knowing the right thing to do at the right moment.

Dr. Salerno: Yeah, you know and I work with so many young doctors and a number of fourth-year medical students who were graduated early so that they could come on the front lines. And they’re amazing. I know that this is gonna be a defining moment in their lives because it’s a defining moment for each of us in our lives. It’s really a time like no other that we’ll experience in any of our lifetimes. I really have so much respect for the courage of the young people I see every single day working really hard to do the best they can to save lives. 

Mrs. G: For sure. I mean, at this point it’s almost not a job. It’s really a calling. I think it’s really incredible to see the solidarity and the unity in the front line workers. I also wanted to talk to you a little bit about a recent interview where you talked about how important it was for us to not just flatten the curve that everybody’s talking about, but to smash that curve. So from your perspective, why is it so important and simply enough in many cases for people to just stay home? I mean, I know that we’ve talked to many people that they’re struggling with that rule that we have to stay home now and abide by these to keep ourselves and everyone else safe.

Dr. Salerno: Yeah, I think that you know, what we’re seeing in New York, which is the epicenter, is the flattening – the plateauing of the curve. But we really have to see it go down, and that’s the smashing of the curve that I talked about. And I think it’s important that we listen to what the public health experts are saying, as hard as it is. And I don’t like the words “social distancing” because we can be social, we can remain connected, but it’s a physical distance. And you know, there’s so many people that I’d like to hug right now, but I can’t. But I see the consequences of people being together and not doing their part. So, it’s part of something larger than each of us. I know how hard it is, and people get down sitting at home and looking at a lot of TV, a lot of social media and are hungry for that physical connection that we can’t have right now. So we need to reach out to each other, and we need to keep making sure we’re checking in on the people we love and we care about, and do everything we can to make sure that people aren’t isolated and alone during this really difficult time for everybody. 

Mrs. G: Yes, and you know I always say there’s a difference between being alone and lonely. I think that we’re really seeing both now. I know that many families that we talk to, they’re really struggling in so many ways, especially those that may have loved ones that are in the hospital and they can’t see them. That’s especially hard on children. Given this liaison role that you have now, interfacing between the medical community and the families, what are you seeing? How are you being able to support them? How are they supporting one another?

Dr. Salerno: Well, I think that it’s really probably the hardest thing that I have to see. It’s families not being able to be at the hospital bedside and with their loved ones, to be able to hold their hand, to reach out in some way, to hug them, to tell them they love them. But one thing that brightens my day a lot is that we do video calls with family. Even when a patient is on a ventilator, intubated and unable to respond, we put the phone or the iPad in front of them, and they hear their loved ones’ voices. And I know, I really do think they hear no matter what state of illness they’re in. But the idea that the family can connect, we’ve had some Zoom family meetings where they’ve all gathered the virtual bedside of their loved ones. It’s really inspiring to see how much love can come across through these kinds of connections that are not physical. But it’s wonderful, and there are brave people who are not doctors and nurses, but social workers and others who are going into that room gowning up so that they can put the phone or the iPad close up and that people can see their loved ones. It’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced, but people are stepping up to do things that are really small miracles every single day that I see.

Mrs. G: They really are, and I think this is one of those times where we really see the power of technology. I mean, this is a case where we’re fortunate to have it and to see it used for so much good is really great. So we thank you for having those Zoom calls with the patients. We’re also focusing a lot on kindness right now. We know that through our research, people that report living or being in kind environments are generally mentally healthier. So we’re focusing a lot on kindness right now. One of the things that has been very inspiring to me, and I look forward to it every day, is the 7PM clap in New York City where everyone takes to their windows and balconies and claps for your work, yourself and the front line workers, and comes together for that moment of solidarity. I’m just wondering if you can share maybe some small acts of kindness that you’re also seeing. 

Dr. Salerno: Oh, absolutely. And I have to tell you that I live on the 27th floor of an apartment building in New York City, and when I’m home at 7:00 at night, I am out there banging on my pots and pans and cheering for the people I work with every single day. Because for me, it’s not noise, it’s a symphony. It brings tears to my eyes every single night because it’s such an extraordinary collective act of kindness. I’m looking at my neighbors in the buildings across the way, and I’m seeing their hands out the window clapping, and I’m hearing their pots and pans, and I’m looking at the kids jumping up and down on the rooftops, and it’s really an amazing experience for me being both part of this big New York City community and part of the healthcare teams working every day to take care of patients. There’s so many extraordinary things that are going on. My daughter’s birthday was a few weeks ago, and her friends planned a surprise party via Zoom for her. They had cake delivered thirty minutes before the party began. So, it was really a lot of fun. I’ve had people cooking meals for me and dropping them off in my lobby. And then people like you who have brought lunch to our Bellevue team because we don’t have time to stop and go get lunch or sit down. So, just to be able to grab some food and have 10 minutes with the mask off where we’re able to enjoy some wonderful food is really nourishing for the soul. 

Mrs. G: That’s great. It’s really wonderful to see everyone come together. I know we’re really hoping that we just continue to see more of those kind acts even after this period of time has gone by. I think it’s been very enriching and rewarding for everyone. And I know you’re so busy. You mentioned you can barely take time for a lunch even, so how are you able to take care of yourself at this time – if there’s any time for that? Because I know you have another job, and your children. I hope you’re finding some ‘Judy’ moments.

Dr. Salerno: Well, there’s a couple things I do every day. I walk home from the hospital, rain or shine. 

Mrs. G: That’s fabulous.

Dr. Salerno: It just gives me time to clear my head, to think, and I listen to a podcast on decompressing for medical professionals. I take a little time – that’s my time – and I breathe, and I just reflect on the day. By the time I get home, all of that energy – and some of it really turns inward and really gets to me – so all of that’s been dissipated. And I go to my front door, we have an incredible routine where I literally (and this is the truth), I strip in the hall, and put my clothes into a bag. Then that goes right into a washer. Then I run into the shower because the last thing I wanna do is to spread the virus to my children. It’s kind of funny because every night I’m streaking through the halls of my apartment building. That was something we did in the 1980s that got a laugh, but it’s rather amusing at my age to be streaking. 

Mrs. G: Yes, but also lifesaving. Who would imagine that streaking is lifesaving? And it really is now. You know, you mentioned this podcast for decompression. I know at Born This Way, we’re concerned about what we’re calling the ‘next pandemic’, and that’s on the mental health front. Because so many front line workers just don’t have time to think about their emotions, to think about their mental health. I saw a video of a front line worker. She was taking a quick break, she went outside, and she did a selfie video. She said, “you know, I don’t know what my life’s gonna be like after this. But I know I’m not gonna be okay.” So, I’m just wondering if you have heard any discussions or any way of supporting front line workers at some point in time, whether it’s now or shortly after we’re through the worst part. 

Dr. Salerno: There are a lot of hotlines set up, which I think are really, really useful. I don’t know how many people are accessing them. And we have in the hospital, we have an R+R room where you can go and you can just have some tea and maybe a snack, and just lie in a comfortable chair for a few minutes and just relax. People do take advantage of that. But I do think that a lot of people, particularly those who are affected because they’re either working on the front lines or they have a family member with COVID – and that’s a lot of people in hot spots like New York – and they’re just taking those emotions, and they’re putting them in a box and putting them aside. What I said to a friend of mine recently is that it’s up to us whether this box turns out to be Pandora’s Box, when it’s opened everything comes flooding out and people are distraught, or we can figure out how to help people manage it a piece at a time, a little bit at a time so that we can get through it. But my biggest concerns were the young health professionals who are out there every day and they people who are cleaning the hospital rooms, and the grocery workers, that they don’t have time or space, really, to think about the danger that they could possibly be in working in these situations. I really hope that we’re there for them now and in the future because I think it’s gonna be something that will change us. We have a choice, whether it changes us for the better or the worse. I hope we make the right decision and really support these people. 

Mrs. G: I sure do too. You know, we’re doing some research now on how this is impacting young people right now. I’m right with you. I really hope that we wrap our arms around them, everyone, young and whatever age anybody might be. There’s also so many other women that are working in the front line. I think about Mother’s Day coming up. We recently learned that in the US right now, women hold 76% of health care jobs – that’s according to the US Bureau of Census – and with Mother’s Day coming up Sunday and Mental Health Awareness Month began on Monday. In fact, I’m wearing my green for the third sustainable development goal of good health and well-being and mental health. With all this coming up and so many women working now, what would you say to the mothers and mother figures that are working on those front lines right now during this crisis? 

Dr. Salerno: We love you. Just know that we love you. It is so important that people feel embraced for what they are doing. I think of a young mother that I’m working with that’s a single mom with two kids at home. I know she worries every day about whether her job is putting her at risk for being able to see her children grow up. We have to really show them in so many ways how we care and the compassion for what they’re going through on all fronts. I can’t imagine coming home from a stressful job and having to homeschool your kids through Zoom lessons, and kids who can’t go and run outside and play. But I think that we can support our moms by just giving them the love they need and deserve.

Mrs. G: I couldn’t agree more with that. I thank you so much for joining me and for joining us today, for sharing your insights with our community, also for your incredible resilience and bravery and sacrifices that you’re making now for all of us. In closing, is there anything else that you would like to leave the audience with?

Dr. Salerno: Kindness. It’s a huge theme right now. It’s a wonderful message. Be kind to each other, love each other, and let’s figure out ways to keep connected because connection is what is gonna get us through all of this. So, thank you for having me. 

Mrs. G: Thank you, and also know that we all love you too. 

Dr. Salerno: Thanks!

Mrs. G: Thank you again. Have a great Mother’s Day!

Dr. Salerno: You too.

Mrs. G: Bye! 


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