'These are real human beings': Bronx native doctor reflects on treating COVID-19 patients

A doctor born and bred in the Bronx is reflecting on treating COVID-19 patients and seeing the true toughness of the Bronx through this pandemic.
Born at NYC Health and Hospitals North Central Bronx, mentored by his pediatrician at Montefiore during high school, graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Morris Park where he mostly grew up, and now a second year psychiatry resident at Montefiore Medical Center, Dr. Ilijran Gjonbalaj has come full circle. “I have a lot of moments where I look out and I'm stunned and in awe, like, this is where I came into this world and now I'm a physician here," he says.
At the beginning of April, Dr. Gjonbalaj found himself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in his home borough, which was getting hit hard. “That was really devastating to me as a Bronxite. I came into it with a unique sense of caution and vigilance for my own community.”
While many people were losing their battle with COVID-19, Dr. Gjonbalaj was deployed to a new unit designated for patients getting better in the Grand Hall, where he had his intern orientation just a year earlier. “I was fortunate, as a Bronxite, knowing firsthand the strength and resilience of the community and had the honor to work with patients who are getting better and recovering to go back to their communities despite all the odds stacked against them.”
The Bronx is the unhealthiest county in the state and home to the poorest congressional district in the nation. It also had more positive COVID-19 cases per capita than any other borough according to the city's department of health.
That is not a surprise to Dr. Gjonbalaj, or others who have experienced the health disparities this pandemic is shining a spotlight on. “We throw these terms around, disparities and inequities, but these are real human beings. These are people. These are Bronxites," the doctor says.
Wanting to make a difference in his own community, coupled with family reasons,  were always why he wanted to work in the Bronx. But this pandemic has cemented that. “It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that my real sense of motivation and strength comes from working in and giving back to the community that gave so much to me and my family," he says.
Dr. Gjonbalaj says the unit he was in is now closed at Montefiore and he's back in his psychiatry specialty. He says he is looking forward to helping his colleagues and other essential workers on the front lines process this pandemic once it's all over.
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