Dressed for Battle: Sara Cross, MD, is at Ground Zero in the Fight Against COVID-19

The following article appeared in the 2020 edition of Leadership magazine.

As Chief of Infectious Diseases, Medical Staff President, and HIV Clinic Medial Director at Regional One Health in Memphis, TN, Sara Cross, MD, ’99 ΚΑΘ, is at Ground Zero in the war against COVID-19. And she’s not backing down.

Suited up for battle in an N-19 mask covered by a plastic face shield, blue medical gloves, and a bright yellow isolation gown, Cross doesn’t just fight for everyday patients struck down by the pandemic — her caseload is packed with the destitute. HIV patients, the uninsured, and others stuck in the cycle of poverty fill the sprawling 326-bed urban hospital.

Cross passionately describes one of her most tragic COVID-19 cases: A 30-year-old woman with advanced HIV rallied and returned home after being hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. She then died suddenly two weeks later after returning to the hospital with shortness of breath.

“It was devastating. We’re not sure what happened to her,” Cross says, choosing her words carefully. “COVID-19 is a terrible disease.”

And although she clearly is in the thick of things at Regional One Health, Cross emphasizes that many more, from nurses and food service workers, spend even more time on the front lines.

To be fair, Cross isn’t at the hospital each day. She also serves as Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where she teaches microbiology to first- and second-year medical students and gives lectures to dental students. Lately, she spends a lot of time counseling medical students, whose classes currently are virtual, to help them deal with the isolation of learning alone during the pandemic.

Cross is easily sympathetic because everyone in health care is hurting right now.

“We are all so tired. It has been a long time since I second-guessed my career decision, and I’ve found myself doing that, although rarely, in the last several months. But I have absolutely no regrets and can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing,” she says.

What keeps Cross going is a steadfast commitment to her underserved patients, which is a calling she found as a student at Westminster College.

“In retrospect, we were all so privileged to be there. I remember such a stark contrast between those of us on campus and many of those in the community, who struggled to put food on the table,” the Park Hills, MO, native reflects. “Looking back, I realize that this is really what sparked my desire to help the underserved. I didn’t go into medicine to just become a doctor. I went into medicine to help those who needed it most.”

After graduating from Westminster with a degree in Biology, Cross served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years in Togo, West Africa. In 2007, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Cross next completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Washington University/Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where an infectious diseases fellowship rounded out her advanced medical training in 2013. She then convinced her husband, James Jones, the couple should move to Memphis so she could work with those in need.

Today Cross would love to give back to Westminster by speaking to students who are interested in going to medical school. Her abbreviated advice: Study hard but be well-rounded and involved on campus.

In pointing out her current concerns about masks, social distancing, and the health and safety of those around her during the pandemic, Cross would also tell students to speak their minds.

She says firmly, “I have such a loud, aggressive, confident voice now, and I can definitely say that started at Westminster.”

Westminster or prospective students who would like medical school advice should email Cross at SCross11@UTHSC.edu. 

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