Pharmacy Student and Soldier, William Hong Fights Pandemic on Front Lines

William Hong is fitted for his PPE

William Hong is fitted for his personal protective equipment (PPE)

June 16, 2020

William Hong will always remember the moment he got the call. 

“I was sitting in a café studying for my pharmacy midterms when my phone rang,” said William, a fourth-year student in the Doctor of Pharmacy program in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “It was leadership from the Army National Guard telling me that they needed more medics in the field.” 

Just like that, William—who is in the fifth year of a six-year commitment to the US National Guard—was called into active duty, joining the national effort to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, while continuing his work in St. John’s rigorous pharmacy program. 

“The work was demanding,” he said. “Between running missions and studying for exams in the pharmacy program, I only averaged a few hours of sleep a day.” 

William was initially stationed at a COVID-19 testing site in New Rochelle, NY, an early hotspot for the virus. “My team included the first army medics in history to do infectious disease tests on civilians,” he said. “They trained us how to do nasopharyngeal swabs, as well as oropharyngeal swabs.”

In addition, his team was hazmat trained by Northwell Health, and they worked with the New York State Police for proper fitting of N95 protective equipment and materials. 

William Hong and Battalion in PPE
William Hong's battalion in full PPE gear.

While William was able to continue his studies through remote learning, his time was at a premium. “The first few weeks on the mission, I would stay up until 3 a.m. to study for my classes,” he said. “Then, I would sleep for two hours and wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready to head to the testing site.”   

Eventually, his team in New Rochelle went their separate ways. “Most of the team started a mission at a new testing site in Stony Brook, NY,” he recalled. William and a good friend were sent to Camp Smith in Cortlandt Manor, NY. “Camp Smith was mostly an operational command. My friend and I wanted to be closer to the front lines, so we volunteered to be stationed with the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters.”

Using Camp Smith as their home base, William and others on his team acted as the medical providers for soldiers assigned to warehouse sites in New York that lacked on-site medics. 

He explained, “When I go to a site, I first check on symptomatic, quarantined individuals to see if they need more medical attention or if they can sit through the incubation period,” he said. “I also ask questions to check on their mental well-being. The mental stress for these soldiers is very high; it has been extremely rough on them.” 

When the stress of balancing his schoolwork with his commitment to the National Guard reached a tipping point, he reached out to Olga Hilas, Pharm.D., Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Health Professions, a professor and mentor to William, who helped him regain focus. 

“Dr. Hilas helped me find some composure when I was breaking down,” he said. “She worked with me to make sure that my academic plan was still intact and on track. I do not know how I can repay her.”

William also reached out to his other professors in the pharmacy program and explained to them his unique situation. “Every one of them was willing to offer me the accommodations I needed to succeed,” he said. This included exams before dawn, after sunrise, and on weekends. “I even gave an oral presentation while driving to a testing site.” 

Not surprisingly, the knowledge William has gained as a pharmacy student has been a tremendous asset to him as a frontline worker. “I was tasked with designing prescription drug ‘to-go’ kits that we can take on missions so we can administer them on the spot,” he said. “I was also able to interpret some of the more advanced COVID-19 information and disseminate that to my team in layman’s terms.”

William’s experience over the past few months as both a student and frontline worker has reaffirmed his goal to be a part of the healthcare field when he completes the pharmacy program next year. “It has been amazing to be a part of a joint operation where everyone works toward one goal,” he said. “I have to thank all of my professors for working with me so I could complete my course work, as well as my mission.”