Sharing Our Stories: Alumnae Stories from the Pandemic

Katie Jenkins Cooke 05.2020Kathryn Jenkins Cooke ’10 has served as Class Secretary since her graduation. She works in Medicaid policy for the AIDS Institute, New York State Department of Health in Albany, New York, where she lives with her husband and two children. She celebrated her first five-year Reunion in 2015 along with her daughter Lexi and her mother Nancy Mencel Jenkins ’77. Here is her story, shared on May 28, 2020:

After my graduation from Douglass, I moved to upstate New York and earned my Master’s of Public Health and joined the AIDS Institute with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH). Currently, I work in the Office of Medical Policy and Health Care Financing, primarily working with NY’s Managed Care Plans, the Special Needs Plans and overall quality improvement for our priority populations.

We had been following COVID-19 closely in the office. The outbreak had already begun in New Rochelle and many of my coworkers were already deployed downstate. We went to work on March 16th thinking it was a normal day, but at 2 pm we were told to leave and begin working from home full-time. This is when we knew “normal” was gone.

Since starting full-time work from home, my job responsibilities have not changed. However, recently I had the opportunity to do a week-long deployment for COVID-19 at a NYC Health and Hospital in Queens, NY, conducting antibody testing for health care workers. Since coming home and starting remote working I had felt a sense of helplessness not assisting with COVID-19 activities. I’m fortunate my husband Ryan (Livingston College 2009) saw my desire to go and help and made it happen while also working remotely.

Our antibody test takes under three minutes to collect but in those three minutes I heard so, so many stories. Stories of joy, happiness, sadness, grief, loss, helplessness and death. Every single person has been affected by COVID-19 and my hope is that for a few minutes we gave them a safe place to share their stories.

Walking away from the hospital, I was struck with the feeling of happiness to serve but sadness to leave. It was a joy and an honor to serve the staff. Every single health care worker we met – from security guard, technician, pharmacist, nurse, doctor, etc. – is literally risking their health and life to serve others, many of whom are people of color, non-English speakers and non-insured, who are, from my public health perspective, the hardest of the hard to reach. I wish every single person could experience 24 hours in NYC in an under-served area to see for themselves the hardships occurring to health care workers, front line workers and the people they serve. Maybe seeing truly is believing.

In the coming weeks, months and probably years we will learn the outcomes of COVID-19 and the toll it will take on ourselves and the people we serve. I would like to say we will come out of this situation with a new normal that is better or, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo states, we will “build it back better.” However, as a public health professional, I know our memories are short and public health has always been the stepsister in the health care arena. As a society, we tend to be reactive and not proactive. I hope we return to a new normal where more focus is on public health but also on showing empathy towards those who need it most.

On the home front, my day-to-day life has changed completely. Overnight I had to adjust to working from home while trying to “home school” my two children, Henry, 7, and Alexa, who just turned 5. That has been the hardest adjustment. Trying to work, be on calls, respond to emails but also teach them. Not to mention, they are missing out on quality development time with their school and friends. While social distancing is important, it certainly takes a toll on one’s mental health, and that includes our children.

My biggest piece of advice to any parent right now is just do your best. If that means the sun is out – let them play outside all day! Working parents feel the pressure to give 100% and find that perfect work-life balance. We have been given this opportunity be home, slow down, reconnect with our children. While this has been challenging, I am never going to get this time back with my children and I want to enjoy this time with them.

I’m thankful that roughly 10 years ago I picked public health as a career choice and that Douglass College provided me with the skills and opportunities to advance my career. To our first responders and those in the related fields – thank you for your time, sacrifice and courage. Stay safe and be well!

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