COVID warrior Dr. Mia Taormina

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An infectious disease specialist for more than a decade, Dr. Mia Taormina was ready for her close-up when WBEZ asked her to be its on-air coronavirus expert early last year.

For the first decade of Dr. Mia Taormina’s career, work went pretty steadily as she saw patients and made rounds. She is one of only three doctors with an infectious disease specialty at DuPage Medical Group, a 750-doctor practice.

In late 2019, Taormina and colleagues in her specialty were among the first to learn about a virus circulating in China. Within weeks, Taormina’s life kicked into high gear and stayed there, as the world started to panic about the then-new coronavirus.

Everyone from fellow doctors to the media was desperate for information, and Taormina had to keep abreast of every development, even as she treated patients and helped her practice devise plans to protect health care workers and patients alike.

In March 2020, Taormina appeared on the “Reset” radio show on WBEZ, the popular National Public Radio station in the Chicago area. She has been appearing on the show, which is also available as a podcast, every Friday for more than a year, answering questions from listeners authoritatively in an approachable style.

Fra Noi recently spoke with Taormina about her Italian roots and the path that led to her current position.

Fra Noi: You have a specialty in infectious diseases. A little more than a year ago, the entire world’s attention started focusing on this area. How did your life change?

Dr. Mia Taormina: We suddenly became very busy, starting in January [2020], keeping up with what was going on in terms of the emerging pandemic and convening a task force [at DuPage Medical Group].

We had to plan how to test patients, how we were going to see them safely and more. We didn’t get access to testing until around Easter last year, so we had to almost write a field guide to say, “We presume the patient has COVID, and this is what we’re going to do about it.” We had to protect our employees, and we had to receive, diagnose and treat these patients. It all evolved over time.

I probably spent 20 hours a week specifically on COVID mitigation and strategies with my organization — in addition to seeing an increase in COVID patients, which effectively doubled our usual patient caseload.

Fra Noi: How has the pandemic affected your personal and professional life?

Dr. Taormina: I’m a single mom of Stella, who’s 7. She knows I’m a germ doctor, and she was aware I was spending a lot less time with her. And she has spent a lot of time in child care. She has been an absolute saint dealing with that. She also knows we’re getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. She’s been a trooper.

Fra Noi: How are you feeling about it all? Are you exhausted? Do you have the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping people?

Dr. Taormina: In the beginning, there was a “doing everything we could think of” attitude to help patients, and in many ways, it wasn’t helping. It was a challenging place to be because people were looking to us. The science was moving constantly. We had an obligation to stay on top of what was working and not working.

When we get to the other side of this, I think we’ll look back at the pandemic with pride in how we came together as a health care team, because everyone stepped up. Since March [2020], I haven’t had a day off to disconnect completely. I think I’ll look back on this with a “how did we do it?” kind of feeling.

Fra Noi: How did the radio show come about? Did WBEZ find you, or did your practice offer your expertise?

Dr. Taormina: WBEZ reached out to DuPage Medical Group around mid-March [2020] after Gov. Pritzker signed the stay-at-home order. WBEZ asked if I could do a live Q&A. So many calls came in that they said, “Will you come in the following Friday,” and it’s never stopped.

It’s a wonderful experience — one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in the pandemic. I love being a voice of reason. I want to follow the science and give the best information we have right now.

In the beginning [for example], people were wiping down their groceries and asking if they should microwave their mail. Back then, I said to leave the masks for health care providers, and there was no evidence cloth masks would help. Two weeks later, we were saying, “Yes, there is evidence that wearing masks helps.” So our position had to pivot 180 degrees.

Fra Noi: Do you have any experience doing radio, journalism or anything similar? Did it go smoothly at the beginning, or was there a learning curve?

Dr. Taormina: I lecture at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, and I’m used to public speaking and answering questions on the fly. At first, there was a bit of angst in doing live radio — I wanted to be sure I said the right thing. As I prepare for tomorrow’s show, I’ll spend the evening reading up on the latest from the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Pfizer, etc. I want to have the best possible answers. And so far, it’s gone very well.

Fra Noi: Tell us about your family and their influences on you growing up.

Dr. Taormina: I’m the oldest grandchild. I grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and my dad works in business and my mom in sales. They’re very smart people, but I was a handful. They let me carve my own path. I knew in elementary school, and absolutely for sure by middle school, that I wanted to be a doctor.

I did undergraduate at Albion [College], then went to Michigan State [University] for medical school, specializing in internal medicine and infectious diseases.

I was ready to go to work in 2009, and the economy tanked — there were no job opportunities in Detroit, but there were significant opportunities in Chicagoland, and it seemed close enough where I could be home in four or five hours. I’ve been here 11 or 12 years now.

Fra Noi: Tell me about the Italian influences you grew up with in your family.

Dr. Taormina: My family is [mostly] Sicilian. One grandpa was born in Sicily, Salvatore Ortisi, and my other grandparents are Southern Italian or Calabrian. My grandma Stella’s parents were born in Calabria, and she was born in the U.S.

I took Italian as a foreign language and spent the summer between junior and senior year of high school at the Dante Alighieri school of language immersion in Florence, Italy.

Some of my fondest memories are the meals with the whole family in Grandma Stella’s basement. I thought everyone grew up with 20 people crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at a table in a basement.

To listen to Dr. Taormina live, tune into “Reset” on WBEZ between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. each Friday. To listen to her podcasts, click here.

The above appears in the June 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Pam DeFiglio

A lifelong writer. Pam DeFiglio works as an editor at the Chicago Tribune Media Group/Pioneer Press. She has won two Chicago Headline Club awards for previous work as an editorial writer and features writer at the Daily Herald. She also won National Federation of Press Women awards for Chicago Tribune news features on immigrants, and has worked in public relations at a university. She loves Italy and all things Italian, thanks to Nanna and a magnificent college year in Rome. She's grateful for all the people working to celebrate Italian culture in Chicago. Contact her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pamdefiglio/

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