Always Ready to Help
Experience at Ground Zero inspires dual career in disaster preparedness and global relief missions
Monday, March 7, 2016
KC Rondello with host family in Ghana

K.C. Rondello '92, B.A. Communication and Business Administration

"If anyone had told me while I was at Trinity that I'd be a physician, much less a disaster epidemiologist, I'd have told them they were nuts." But as K.C. Rondello, M.D., M.P.H. discovered, "just when you think you've figured it out, life has a funny way of throwing you a curveball."

As a young man from Long Island, New York who had never been west of Pennsylvania and had many universities to choose from, K.C. took a "leap of faith" and opted for Trinity sight unseen. Thrust into a culture that was completely foreign to him, the first semester was rough. Mexican food was an eye-opening experience. Southern cuisine was another. When he heard a much larger classmate order "a big bowl of grits," K.C. reckoned he didn't need quite that much and confidently said, "I'll just have a grit."

Despite the culture shock, K.C. persevered, majored in communication and business

K.C. Rondello head shot

administration, and remembers two standout professors: Sammye Johnson (communication) and Moya Ball (speech and drama). "I don't think a day goes by that I don't employ the finesse and confidence Moya instilled in me or the writing skills made possible by Sammye's guiding hand and steely-eyed stare."

As a senior with one last Common Curriculum course to complete, K.C. chose "The U.S. Health Care System," simply because it fit best into his schedule. "From the first day, I was hooked," he says—so much so that he accepted an offer to attend Yale and earned a Master of Public Health.

Inspired by his academic adviser at Yale, who happened to be an M.D. as well as an M.P.H., K.C. took another leap of faith. Less than 24 hours after receiving his degree from Yale, K.C. found himself at SUNY Stony Brook, where he completed the 40 hours of pre-med prerequisites, took the MCAT, enrolled at St. George's, University of London in the U.K., and in 2000 became a medical doctor and epidemiologist. With the clinical acumen to interact with physicians and the administrative expertise to manage health systems, he was now prepared for a career as a physician executive. That's where fate stepped in.

On his first day of work as the physician executive of Franklin Hospital Medical Center in Valley Stream, N.Y., K.C. was waiting to have a physical, get his ID badge, etc. when the Twin Towers were struck. "The CEO ran into the room and said he needed me to help triage and treat in the ER," K.C. said. "I told him I hadn't even been medically cleared to work yet."

"None of that matters," the CEO responded. "We're at war." Within hours, K.C. arrived at Ground Zero, where he remained on site for a month. "It was the single most pivotal event of my life," K.C. says.

Reflecting on the magnitude of that event, K.C. "thought long and hard about how best to make my time count." He went on to become a health system disaster preparedness director and administrator of a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Center for Healthcare Preparedness, eventually entering academia at Adelphi University as a professor and chair. This occupation affords him the opportunity to teach the next generation of emergency responders while still working domestically and internationally in disaster relief.

K.C. is also a disaster epidemiologist with the National Disaster Medical System, the organization responsible for managing the federal government's medical response to major emergencies and disasters. Additionally, impassioned by a Yale Alumni Service Corps mission trip to Mexico, K.C. began volunteering with other NGOs on service missions around the world during his spring, summer, and fall breaks in academia. He has slept on straw, survived on insects, and been stung by a venomous scorpion, but his time has been "marked by impact, not hardship."

What is hard, he acknowledges, is being up close and personal with human suffering and lacking the time or resources to alleviate it. He recalls being in a makeshift clinic on the Dominican/Haitian border and having to tell a waiting crowd that they could not see any more patients. "It was gut wrenching to see people pleading; mothers holding up their infants with tears streaming down their cheeks. Those instances are hard to get a grip on." K.C. copes by having long conversations with colleagues and reminding himself of "the patients who were seen, the lives that were saved."

On a recent trip to West Africa, he was walking with Sam, a member of his host family in the village of Abura. As they passed a tinned-roof, cinder-block shack with a television on, Sam started to laugh. When K.C. asked him what was so funny, Sam said it was the report of something going on in New York City called Occupy Wall Street. "They think they are the 99 percent? This is the 99 percent," he said gesturing to the destitute surroundings.

Although his time at Ground Zero had a deleterious effect on his health which may limit how long he can continue, K.C. remains committed to his mission and disaster relief work. "I've found that enthusiasm for this type of work is infectious," he says, "and I hope to give as many more people the bug as I can. It would be wonderful to establish an Alumni Service Corps where I currently work or perhaps even at Trinity. If there are any takers, you know where to find me."

You can reach K.C. at KC@aya.yale.edu

Mary Denny helps tell Trinity's story as a contributor to the University communications team.

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