International missions helped prepare doctor for pandemic fight

Zach Krumsick
Photograph courtesy Zach Krumsick

Before he even attended his first class at the KU School of Medicine, Zach Krumsick had accumulated a world of experience dealing with challenging health issues in difficult circumstances.

The Frontenac native was determined to learn about diverse cultures beyond his small southeast Kansas hometown; during his undergraduate days at Pittsburg State University he completed medical missions to Peru, Belize and Mexico. Craving deeper immersion, he spent a year between undergrad and medical school doing humanitarian work in public health and education in Kenya, helping the “poorest of the poor” in a Nairobi slum manage the AIDS epidemic and take full advantage of support offered by local schools.

Those international sojourns—along with part-time jobs working for a local physician and a hospital lab during his pre-med training—have stood Krumsick, m’17, in good stead throughout his medical education, including now, as a third-year resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Working in the emergency medicine department of the only state-verified Level I Trauma Center in middle Tennessee, he’s on the front lines of the region’s response to an unprecedented public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you had told us three months ago that doctors would be rationing masks or reusing them, I think we’d have laughed at you,” Krumsick said during an interview in early April. “No one I know has ever seen anything like this. We are in uncharted territory every day.”

If scrambling to prepare for a global pandemic weren’t enough, the medical center was deeply affected by a tornado that roared through downtown Nashville in early March, killing two dozen people and injuring more than 300. The storm destroyed a warehouse that held much of Vanderbilt’s stockpile of medical supplies, and several of Krumsick’s colleagues lost homes or went long stretches without power and water.

“I’ve been told by administrators that we were probably one of the most well-prepared hospitals in the area,” Krumsick says, “but that tornado set us back really far.”

Seeing the city come together to help those in need and rebuild supply stockpiles has been reminiscent of the spirit he observed on his medical missions, where he learned that it’s impossible to predict what will happen and that you’re never as prepared as you want to be.

“You have to be on the balls of your feet at all times, to be flexible. One of the things I learned in east Africa is the day often doesn’t go like you want, and it’s kind of what you make of it in the end. It’s a daily decision to choose joy and choose to work hard and get through it with everyone. I’m seeing that again here in Nashville with all the people coming together and doing their part.”

Krumsick’s wife, Rachel Kaiser Krumsick, n’14, g’19, also works at Vanderbilt, as an oncology nurse, and they have a 14-month-old baby. He feels fortunate they all are young and healthy, but he’s well aware of the risks for health care providers in daily contact with COVID-19.

“It has certainly opened up conversations with my family, with my wife, things that I never thought I’d be talking about at 30. It’s very surreal to have those conversations with someone at such a young age.”

To people wondering how to respond to calls for social distancing, he offers the same counsel he gave his mother when she asked, “Do I take this seriously? Can I still go to church?”

“I try to be as conservative as I can with advice, but I look at the numbers in Tennessee and we’re where the bigger cities were a week or two ago,” Krumsick says. “I don’t like seeing the number of deaths per day double every couple of days or so. You can’t fight those numbers, so I think we are beyond not believing this is happening.”

Before this pandemic ends, he feels, almost everyone will know someone affected by COVID-19. That means we have to do what we can to protect one another.

“I tell people to hunker down,” he says. “You’re doing the right thing, and we will come together and we’ll get through it.”