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NewYork-Presbyterian Queens Asian health care workers speak on fighting COVID-19 and anti-Asian racism

Dr. Cynthia Pan and Dr. Seunghyup Baek of NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. (Photo courtesy of NYPQ)

One afternoon in March, Dr. Cynthia Pan was out getting lunch in Douglaston with her teenage son. As they walked back to their car, a man suddenly charged at her. She narrowly escaped unharmed, thanks in part to her son who intervened, distracted the man, and eventually drove him away. 

Pan attributes his intervention to the fact that they had discussed such scenarios and her son was prepared to act. Following the harassment that nearly escalated into violence, Pan doesn’t go in public without three items she feels are vital to her safety: a whistle, an alarm siren and mace. 

“If someone is coming towards me on the sidewalk, I step off of the sidewalk onto the street so I’m not in anyone’s way,” Pan said. “If I go outside for a walk by the hospital or to pick up some food, I ask someone to walk with me. It’s not right to have to live like this, and you have to be prepared.” 

The past year has been challenging for Pan, who experienced the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand as a frontline healthcare worker treating patients at what was once the epicenter of the pandemic, and also when she became severely ill with the virus last April. 

Pan is the division chief of Geriatrics and Palliative Care Medicine and a Designated Institution Official (DIO) of Graduate Medical Education (GME) at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens Hospital in Flushing. 

It was like a war zone. Every day walking in the halls, we would be running into our hospital leaders and they would say, ‘two more units have to be converted to a COVID unit’ and by the height of pandemic, our hospital had 93 percent of COVID patients, seeing the highest numbers in our health system,” Pan said.

Dr. Cynthia Pan of NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. (Photo courtesy of NYPQ)

Yet despite that heroism and everything she had been through, Pan also found her and the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community scapegoated for the very virus she had worked to tirelessly combat. 

“After all the hard work we did to try to do our best to save patients, to comfort families … to then get assaulted and insulted, it’s just very, very disheartening, and not acceptable,” Pan said. 

A resident of Great Neck, Long Island, Pan was born in Taiwan and grew up in Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Paraguay. She is fluent in Spanish and also speaks Mandarin. However, growing up in South America was difficult for Pan because she “looked different” from the other children in school, she said. When her family moved to Canarsie, Brooklyn, in 1979, someone burned a large cross on the front lawn of their home. 

“My brother and I would hide behind the window while trying to see who would come again after that,” Pan said. 

As racial tensions are currently high in the U.S. amid growing anger over police killings of Black men and women fueling the Black Lives Matter Movement, Asians and Asian Americans are now rallying to #StopAsianHate amid the escalating violent attacks against the community that has been blamed for the coronavirus. 

Last June, according to Pan, the hospital’s residents had approached her about the murder of George Floyd and leading a rally in support of BLM, followed by a rally against anti-Asian racism.

“We are on the right track. Our young generation, I give them so much credit. They went through hell and back in the past year and they’ve stood up for the right thing,” Pan said. 

If there is a silver lining to the past year, it’s that COVID showed Pan the power of solidarity — how coming together can get people through times of crisis. She keeps that in mind as she speaks up about racism and Asian hate.

“People have to stand up for each other and do the right thing,” Pan said. “During those hazy moments of COVID, I realized one thing that’s really important for me is that we have to take care of our patients, of course, but we also have to take care of ourselves—and we have to take care of each other.”  

Like Pan, Dr. Seunghyup Baek, an internal medicine resident at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens, had put out a call to action for everyone to speak up when the hospital held a moment of silence for the victims of the AAPI hate crimes. Pan and Baek were part of the NewYork-Presbyterian Queens inclusion group talk, where they encouraged staff members to speak up about anti-Asian hate and about bystander training, using the BLS (Basic Life Support) model to help a victim. 

“If we stay silent, it means we are no different than those who see the violent incidents and ignore them,” Baek said. “Silence is not the solution. Working at a hospital, we are here to help heal patients, and I believe we can also help heal these racial divides.” 

Born in South Korea and raised in Atlanta, GA, Baek currently lives in Flushing where there is a large majority of Asian Americans. According to Baek, it’s hard to feel any disparities since there isn’t much of a difference, but when it comes to walking outside in other parts of Queens or Manhattan, he becomes vigilant about his surroundings. 

“I avoid dark alleys and nighttime outings,” Baek said. “Why is my freedom limited this way because of the rising violence — that is one thing that really bothers me. Here in New York, it’s not as severe as other states or parts of the U.S., where I feel for other Asian Americans.”

Dr. Seunghyup Baek of NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. (Photo courtesy of NYPQ)

With AAPI hate crimes on the rise, Baek has been checking in with his parents, who own a beauty supply store in Atlanta, several times a day after the mass shooting that claimed the lives of eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent. When his parents don’t answer, he starts to worry, he said. 

“It gives me a little bit of anxiety, wondering if something is wrong with them,” Baek said. “When there’s any news in Georgia my attention goes straight there.” 

According to Baek, he had just finished his shift when he saw the news about a gunman who had opened fire in the Atlanta-area. He had immediately called his parents, who are located just 9 miles from where two of the shootings took place. For years, according to Baek, his parents had encountered verbal attacks from customers who weren’t satisfied with the service or if they cannot get certain items, often saying racial slurs. 

“The sad thing is that they don’t know what’s wrong with it when they say hateful things to Asians and can get away with it,” Baek said. “In Atlanta, people scope it up and move on. There’s not much knowledge on why it’s not okay to say that to a person.” 

Growing up, Baek experienced numerous accounts in middle school and high school when his classmates made fun of his appearance, his accent and his culture, saying it was just the tip of the iceberg for him. 

“One thing I really want to point out is that Asian Americans feel like we are excluded and are treated as foreigners and not as Americans when people look at us and say, ‘Where are you really from?’” Baek said. 

According to Baek, it starts with teaching kids about Asian American culture and heritage and their contributions to America — none of which is included in U.S. history lessons in school, he said. 

“I am an American citizen and if the U.S. needs me, I will defend this country just like other people. We vote. We pay taxes. We do everything as an American. We obey the rules. What makes us different from other people?” Baek said. “If we start excluding people, there will be a divide and our strength will become our weakness.” 

While Baek is encouraging people to come together in the fight against anti-Asian hate, he said he is also touched by Congresswoman Grace Meng’s leadership on combating the issue. 

“She spoke as if those victims were her own family,” Baek said. “I think there should be more voices in politics to represent Asian Americans so our voice will be as prominent as many other ethnicities.”

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