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A Community in Need

Chinazo Opia Cunningham spoke out for patients and her medical colleagues while helping her New York City hospital through the worst of the pandemic.

Chinazo Illustration
Image: Claire Merchlinsky

By Clare Milliken
Fall 2020

Since the middle of March, Chinazo Opia Cunningham ’90 has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. A physician and researcher at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, Cunningham has been working tirelessly to care for patients in one of the cities hardest hit by coronavirus.

“When I started in the hospital, I would say 25% of the patients I was taking care of had COVID-19,” Cunningham says. “Ten days later, 95% of the patients had COVID-19.”

Cunningham, who has worked across many areas of medicine — including HIV, drug addiction and harm reduction — during her 25-year career, says the worst days of the pandemic were an “all hands on deck” period, with everyone working together in chaotic circumstances.

“Things were literally changing by the hour in terms of the number of beds we needed and the number of providers necessary on the floor,” she says. “There were urologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists — all these people who would not normally be working in an internal medicine ward — they all came together to meet the need.”

For Cunningham, the trauma of her work was twofold: She and her colleagues were faced with so much death and heartbreak, and at the same time, health care workers across New York City faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (watch her interview with CNN).

“One of the most challenging and upsetting pieces of this was that the message being put out into the world by politicians and other leaders in medical care was, ‘We have things under control,’” she says. “That wasn’t true at all. We didn’t have the protection that we needed, which put us and our families at risk. I think the world and the country needed to hear the truth.”

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