CHICAGO (CBS) — Former Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said tennis, yoga, prayer, and family dinners grounded her through the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first major COVID challenge for Dr. Ezike came three years ago Tuesday – as a patient fresh from Wuhan, China entered a Hoffman Estates hospital and became just the second official COVID patient in the U.S.
Dr. Ezike sat down with CBS 2’s Chris Tye Tuesday to reflect on the scary days – and the most hopeful moments.
Ezike took away three big lessons from COVID. One was to protect the most vulnerable first. The second was that education and information need to be solid to overcome misinformation and disinformation. The third is that partnerships are life-savingly important.
But there are two questions she gets above all else.
“‘How did you learn to speak Spanish?'” Ezike said, “and then the second one was, ‘How did you hang in there so long?'”
The long run of the COVID pandemic in Illinois began three years ago at AMITA Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates.
The second COVID patient in America checked in, and so did an army of doctors – including Dr. Ezike.
“I remember everybody being there – lots of huddles. Everybody was working their tails off,” Ezike said. “Yes, we probably were fearful because everything was so unknown – but we didn’t have time to focus on that.”
Ezike’s focus was following the data – and advising Gov. JB Pritzker on decisions not everyone agreed with.
“Suspicious packages showing up at the house; people knocking on your house at 5 o’clock in the morning – at some point, actually having; really feeling the need to have a State Police escort,” Ezike said. “Unfortunately, that was the reality.”
And this happened with Ezike’s family at home.
“We had four kids at home at the time – really tried to shield them from that. I mean, they obviously saw the car out front and were like, ‘Uh, okay,’ but nothing was normal at that time,” Ezike said. “They were forced to kind of deal with what came.”
Ezike was forced to find short moments in those tense days to keep herself focused.
“There were a lot of short prayers all day long,” Ezike said. “I couldn’t make it to the end of the day without that.”
In the three years since, some days stand out from the rest.
“The idea of actually closing down the state – where things were closing. I think one of the things was that the St. Paddy Day parade was not going to happen. That wasn’t within the realm of something I’d seen or thought of before,” Ezike said. “There’s no playbook, there’s no blueprint – and here I am.”
There she was. Never had more eyes and judgements been made on the state top doctor.
But the pressure didn’t sap Ezike’s energy. In fact, she says it did quite the opposite.
That helps her lead Sinai Chicago, the largest private safety-net medical system in Illinois.
“I am raring to go. I think I’m equipped. I’ve been through the fire,” Ezike said. “We can keep going through it. I’m a dragon slayer.”
We should note Dr. Ezike is the subject of an ethics investigation. The Better Government Association says what is at issue is a state law dealing with former state department heads who oversee contracts – and their future employers.
That Ezike works for Sinai Health may or may not be in violation of that law, but the investigation into that matter has not wrapped up. To date, Ezike has not been found to have done anything wrong.
All that being said, on the virus front, Ezike believes Illinois is far more prepared for whatever comes next – given what we went through these last three years.