Dr. Eugene Hong, chair of the US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee and co-chair of the Safe Return to Play advisory group established by US Lacrosse, has spent 25 years in medical practice, including the past two years as part of the leadership team at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

None of his past medical experiences, however, had yielded the needed playbook for the battle against COVID-19. 

“This has been an unprecedented public health crisis, and really has no comparison from a health care standpoint,” Hong said. “There’s no blueprint to follow.”

In his role as MUSC’s Chief Physician Executive, Hong oversees the health system’s medical practice plan which is implemented in eight hospitals across the state. Basically, he is in charge of all things related to the system’s 1,200 physicians.

To help provide leadership during this crisis, Hong coordinates a daily conference call with 180 physician leaders throughout the health system in an effort to share the most current coronavirus updates and information.

“We are learning lessons on a daily basis,” he said. 

There’s no shortage of issues that Hong and his team have been addressing during their 14-hour work days, seven days per week. Making sure that all of the system’s hospitals have the needed resources, including ventilators and personal protective equipment, has been a major undertaking.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s the fact that the pandemic in South Carolina has not reached the crippling levels that have been seen in New York City and other hotspots across the country. But that doesn’t provide much comfort to Hong.

“We just don’t know if we are past the peak yet,” he said. “We are preparing as if a tidal wave of patients could still hit us.”

In addition to providing the best possible patient care, Hong’s team is also concerned about the health and well-being of its own care providers. Adhering to proper procedures and protocols is vital.

“Our health care providers are people too and we know that they are at higher risk because of their repeated exposure to the coronavirus,” Hong said. “We’re trying to make sure that we are doing the right things to protect our heath care staff.”

Hong notes that he is overwhelmed as he sees the daily efforts being put forth by his colleagues in their care for patients.

“It’s so incredible to see what our care team members are doing,” he said. “I’m so grateful for all of them.”

Headquartered in Charleston, MUSC is the oldest medical facility in the state and has a long tradition of providing medical education, research, and patient care. One of Hong’s growing concerns is the drastic drop-off in patients with severe medical issues unrelated to COVID-19.

“We’re wondering where all the patients with heart attacks and strokes have gone,” he said. “We’re worried that they are delaying their care for life-threatening issues because they are afraid of coming into the hospital. We’re trying to let them know that we have created pathways to keep them safe.” 

As a sports medicine specialist, Hong served on the medical staff for the 2016 U.S. Men's U19 Team which captured the world championship in Coquitlam, Canada. He remains active in direct patient care, and is utilizing MUSC’s advanced infrastructure for tele-medicine to stay connected with as many patients as possible. Hong notes that nearly half of the health system’s 1.6 million annual patient visits are now being conducted virtually.

“This is likely to become the new normal in health care, long after the pandemic has passed,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, patients really like using tele-medicine. It’s not going to go away.”

Hong’s only respite from the nearly non-stop management of the crisis is the precious few hours he is able to regroup with his family. Even then, he exercises caution in not exposing his wife and college-age daughters to potential illness. Both of his daughters returned to Charleston last month.

“I’m grateful that they are with me and that we’re not an empty nest right now,” he said.

Upon moving to Charleston two years ago, Hong also took on the responsibility of serving as chief medical advisor to Clemson University’s athletic department, providing counsel on all issues related to sports medicine. He has served as an NCAA team physician for two decades.

Hong’s role with Clemson’s athletic department led to his placement earlier this year on the NCAA/AMSSM advisory panel for COVID-19. In the early stages of the pandemic, that group had recommended that the NCAA conduct its March Madness basketball tournaments with no spectators.

“Obviously, it snowballed from there,” Hong said, in reference to the eventual cancellation of all NCAA championships and spring sports. “Our focus now is how do we safely return athletes back to college sports.”

As yet, there are no clear answers to those types of questions. 

“I think health care will be dealing with this issue for quite some time,” Hong said. “We’re still trying to figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons.”