By: Fellow MCS Alumn
Will Southern ’77 is the chief of hospital medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where he oversees dozens of doctors and physician assistants who spent much of the spring responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The center saw its first patient with Covid-19 on March 11, and soon that number shot up dramatically; at one point in mid-April, the center’s three hospitals were treating 1,148 patients with the disease in facilities that usually care for more like 700 to 750 people at one time.
Will and his staff had to learn on the fly how to treat Covid-19 and how to protect themselves at the same time. “It felt a little bit like I was asking people to step into battle,” he says. When he left work and returned home to his wife and two teenage sons in Westchester every day, Will tried – with mixed success – to quarantine himself. “I considered myself to be pretty high risk.” Many people on his staff got sick themselves, though fortunately all of those people survived. Will and his family avoided the illness. By mid-May, the situation at Montefiore had improved, reflecting the change throughout New York City, and the medical center was back down to 191 Covid-19 patients.
Long before his work in the medical field and his experience on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic, Will and his family had deep ties to MCS, dating back to the school’s earliest years. Will’s older sister, Hilary Llewellyn-Southern ‘75 was in the school’s first kindergarten class; she later worked on the Farm staff and is now a public school teacher in Schenectady. Will started at MCS in 1968, two years after it opened . Their late father, Hugh Southern, was a member of the Board of Trustees in the late 1960s and was involved in the creation of MCS’s sliding-scale tuition system. Their mother, Jane Llewellyn-Southern, worked in various positions at MCS, including as assistant director, and now lives in Connecticut.
After graduating from MCS, Will went to high school at Fieldston and then to college at Wesleyan, and he got his medical degree at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which is part of Montefiore. He later worked at Mt. Sinai on the Upper East Side for eight years before going back to Montefiore. The medical center, Will says, is a “mission-driven institution” that serves a community in the Bronx that has high rates of poverty and chronic illness, which made it particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.
He shared his thoughts about fighting the pandemic and about his experience at MCS in mid-May, after the spring peak had passed and as New York City was moving toward opening up again. Here are edited excerpts:
Question: How did your MCS experience and education affect your life after MCS?
Answer: I was very conscious of the values we were being exposed to. What I didn’t realize until later is that it gives everything I do a sense of purpose and mission. I have thought about that a lot in the last month and a half.
Q: Were there particular experiences, events or pieces of the curriculum that you remember from MCS that resonated with you later in life?
A: Probably the largest is the Farm. Although the sense of community that was created by assemblies in the music room [in MCS’s former building on E. 96th Street] is something I do not think I have experienced since. If I were to pick out one academic thing, it would be Gus’s grammar lessons. I think I could still diagram a sentence today.
Q: From your perspective today, what do you think is the most valuable thing about MCS’s mission and program?
A: When I was at MCS, my somewhat naïve belief was that progress toward a better world was linear. I could not imagine that progress toward justice and respect for diversity was not a linear process moving in one direction. Having those ideals be the driving force in kids’ education seems more important than ever.
Q: In terms of your current work, are there particular ways MCS prepared you for this?
A: For sure. I do not see patients full-time anymore, but when I did, an incredibly important part of taking care of patients in a place like the Bronx is a comfort with thinking about respect for diversity and other cultures. You have to have a genuine comfort and respect to deal with difficult issues, issues of cultural difference, economic inequality and cultural norms. We grew up in MCS comfortable not only with diversity but comfortable with talking about diversity.