By Emma Vallelunga
Photo by Alice G. Patterson
When the world is in crisis, we need more than just Superman. In times like these, the heroes we seek wear full-body gowns, N95 masks and face shields. But in Syracuse, physicians like Onondaga County Health Commissioner Dr. Indu Gupta break medical boundaries, connect with patients, strive for a healthier community, and may even save us from the villain that has become COVID-19.
Immigrating from northern India in 1986, Gupta and her husband settled down in Central New York. Although she received a medical degree in India, she was recertified in the U.S. and ran a private practice in Syracuse at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Gupta said she began to grow in her field, learning, sympathizing and getting to know her patients as people rather than numbers on a chart.
“Different kinds of things impact people’s health,” she said. “Med school doesn’t teach you these things. You are learning from your patients that their lives are so complicated at times. Unless you understand the complexity of what’s happening in their lives, you really can’t make an impact. You can write a prescription, [but] people need more from their doctor or nurse. You provide empathy and support. It’s a great way of practicing medicine.”
Gupta continued her practice while raising two daughters and eventually received her master of arts in public administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. She eventually closed her practice at the hospital after 15 years, but she was on a mission to begin another journey. She got her master’s of public health at John Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2009, and she was even an assistant clinical professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.
“I could teach, take care of patients and stay engaged at the system level at the hospital, because that’s how you make changes,” she said. “You educate the next generation, and you also educate and learn from your colleagues, and then things change in the system.”
But when all that was said and done, she decided to come home to Syracuse and was offered the position of health commissioner for Onondaga County in 2014.
“Syracuse is a wonderful place,” she said. “I raised my kids here, I practiced here, I love the people here. I just felt like this was my home. At the end of the day, the weather is great in different places, but it’s all about where you feel comfortable.”
In her new role, Gupta said she wanted to make a difference in the community and be a part of changes within the county department while also continuing to learn.
“I am a life-long student,” she said. “That’s where my journey has continued. It’s been a wonderful journey so far. It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t [want] it any other way.”
Her dedication to all things health runs deeper than just science. Gupta had her sights set on bettering the county’s health and safety long before the coronavirus pandemic. When the number of people dying from opioid abuse grew in Onondaga County, Gupta met with the District Attorney’s office until she was asked to be co-chair of the Onondaga County Drug Task Force, an organization with memberships from more than 50 local agencies.
“I got a lot of physician [support],” she said. “The medical community needed to be a part of it. It’s not a law enforcement issue, it’s a public health issue.”
In addition to combating substance abuse and addiction in the county, the DTF works to raise awareness for substance abuse issues, ensure treatment and recovery options and reduce the number of opioid-related deaths. She said the group has done an incredible job leading that fight and will continue to work remotely during the pandemic.
“This is [still] an important issue,” she said. “Our rates have slightly gone up, and we don’t want that. We’re doing our best to continue to raise awareness, collaborate with everyone and make sure our voices can be heard at every level.”
Gupta is also one of the many minds behind Greater Syracuse H.O.P.E., an anti-poverty non-profit organization powered by Gov. Cuomo’s Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. Gupta remembers when a report from The Century Foundation found that in 2015 Syracuse had the highest concentration of poverty among African Americans and Hispanics. She said the realization was eye-opening for her and her colleagues.
“Everybody paused, and it was emotionally reckoning in a way,” she said. “[It was] something that we knew, but somebody [else] put it out there. The data was very powerful. It was emotionally very charging, but at the same, it was a call to action.”
Since then, H.O.P.E. has culminated into, “a diverse collection of residents and community organizations who have committed to working together to eradicate poverty in Syracuse,” according to its website. Although Gupta is not actively involved with the organization anymore, she continues to advocate for their cause.
“It is very discomforting at times that this is the most powerful country [with] the most advanced things that we have in this country, but we’re still dealing with this issue in this day and age,” she said. “In my position as a health commissioner, as a woman, as a mother, as a member of this community, I think it’s important for me to understand and also continue to engage everybody that we can change our course in life, but we need to have the opportunity to do so. We can’t do it in a vacuum. We really need to have those opportunities in our society so we can achieve the best health.”
During the pandemic, the Onondaga County Executive Office as a whole is continuing to monitor more than 2,000 coronavirus cases. The health department, where Gupta works alongside other physicians, is responsible for many support systems for patients, including the county’s contact investigations and tracing, the process of tracking down positive cases and contacting those that may have been exposed.
“The goal of [contact tracing] is we want to make sure that if you are the [positive] case, we will make sure you aren’t exposing anybody anymore,” she said. “We’ve prevented many people from transmitting the infection this way.”
Like thousands of medical professionals across the country, Gupta advises members of the community to wear a face mask in public, wash your hands frequently, social distance and stay home if they start to experience symptoms of the virus. Gupta believes the fight against COVID-19 begins with each individual, and people will only prevail if we each do our part to stop the spread and save Onondaga County together.
“As health commissioner, for me, the whole community is the one which we serve, making sure people are protected at every level,” she said. “We have to look from both sides and make sure we create an environment in which everybody feels safe and protected. It’s the principle of public health. We all have a responsibility to work toward making our community healthy.”