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Florida Guardsman receives U.S. Surgeon General’s highest civilian honor

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jacob Hancock
  • 125th Fighter Wing

JACKSONVILLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, FL -- January 2020 was a month in which the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States marked the pages of U.S. history. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, it left an indelible mark on the nation’s historical landscape.

In this time of unprecedented global health challenges, frontline responders like Maj. Kevin Tipton stand out as beacons of hope and resilience. Tipton, a critical care nurse practitioner with the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida Air National Guard, received the Surgeon General’s Medallion from Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, on Sept. 18, 2023. This award was presented to Tipton in recognition of his contributions to civilian healthcare and is the highest honor the U.S. Surgeon General can bestow to civilians who represent outstanding “acts of compassion, innovative mental health efforts, and exceptional leadership in advancing the well-being of their communities” according to the office of the Surgeon General. He is the second Airmen, and first Asian American, in history to receive this honor from the Surgeon General.

Tipton served on the frontline in Florida’s intensive care units during the COVID-19 pandemic, where up to 70 percent of their patients, including frontline workers, were lost. His primary goal was to safeguard human life while raising awareness about healthcare worker burnout, encapsulating a story of dedication, empathy, and perseverance. His advocacy efforts highlighted the impact the pandemic had on patients, their families, and the healthcare workers risking their lives to help others. Following his initial service with his civilian employer, Tipton activated to further serve Florida citizens with the National Guard response to the pandemic. This Q&A explores Tipton’s experiences, insights, and the indelible impact of his work on the community and beyond.

What does the honor of receiving the U.S. Surgeon General’s Medallion mean to you?
To be honest, I was very grateful to even be considered, and never expected to be recognized in this way. I think what matters most to me is that it helped to uplift the stories of those we lost, and everyone left behind in a way that – I hope -- provides them dignity and helps our nation learn the lessons necessary to prevent these tragedies in the future. Of course, it is a great honor to be one of the first Floridians, and only the second member of the U.S. Air Force to receive this, however, ultimately, I wanted to ensure that this moment was about the families that I wish we could’ve done more for during the pandemic.

What was your reaction when you learned that you received this award and moreover, learning that you were just the second Airman to receive this honor?
In truth, I was shocked. My experiences were shared by millions of Americans, and I didn’t feel that my contributions made me special. To me, the pandemic was about doing whatever we could, and I felt desperate as we were powerless to help so many, so I decided to use my voice in any way possible to call attention to the very human-driven moments of the pandemic. That said, there were many firsts here including being the first Asian American — along with Alysha Lee of California — to receive this award. Among other firsts, it was humbling to be part of a moment that was meant to uplift so many people across the country. For background, I was born in Korea and came to the United States as an infant immigrant. Adopted and given a home and a country, I have been very grateful for everything, and everyone. Having been chosen to join others, in recognition of the sacrifice and work of so many is truly humbling — especially when I think how lucky I was to even find a home here thanks to my parents. Our country has given so much to so many and, despite its faults, I’m proud to be among them.

Much of the work you accomplished during COVID led to this recognition. What do you believe distinguished you among the thousands of frontline healthcare workers who bravely fought to save lives?
The Surgeon General let me know that the reason I was picked was primarily because of my ability to connect with others and share the human stories behind the numbers we saw in the media. In addition, I did a great deal of advocacy work both in the community and the media to help spread truth and cut through the noise in order to help save lives and livelihoods. This got his attention. I’m not ultimately sure why I – out of so many others that were doing similar things – was chosen but I am very grateful to have been counted among the individuals and organizations that did similar work across the country during the pandemic.

Did you leverage your experience during the pandemic to improve processes, help others or seek other professional opportunities? 
Absolutely, this was actually one of the reasons the Surgeon General selected me. By utilizing these experiences and uplifting the stories of the families we cared for, we were able to be part of guidance that was spread nationwide to help combat, burn out and improvement health across every community.

What was a typical day like for you during the pandemic?
During the very worst moments of the pandemic, I was serving in our public hospitals in South Florida. Joining with thousands of other health workers, we were committed to doing our best to save lives in nearly impossible circumstances. Watching the families of our patients suffer and say goodbye over the phone was heartbreaking and seeing our neighbors lose their jobs, their savings, and (ironically), their access to healthcare through their insurance was just as painful. Ultimately, the darkest moments were when we lost mothers and fathers of young children, and watched their adult parents say goodbye to them. We learned many lessons that I hope we will take with us should we ever face something like this again.

How did this unprecedented era in our history affect you as a frontline worker? (i.e. did this change the way you provided care)
This was a collective experience that we all went through as we learned more about the virus, and the pandemic itself. I think, together, we all learned what we are capable of and found a way to meet the moment. There were teenagers acting as substitute teachers for their little siblings. There were logisticians across the country finding ways to get important goods to where they needed to go. None of us did anything alone, and all of us needed everyone to do our part and I think that is what I take away from these last few years. There were no frontline workers, there were only individuals, families, and communities doing their best -- no matter what their tasks were.

How did you balance your civilian and military commitments during that time?
That was difficult, especially when Miami became one of the epicenters of the pandemic and field hospitals were opened in our community run by our service members. Thankfully, my military leaders were able to ensure that I was not taken away from my public hospital duties in the region. However, when eventually able, I was able to join them in a way that did not significantly impact my civilian hospitals.

Were you activated for COVID response at any time? If so, when and where did you serve?
Yes, for two months in Spring 2021. During that time, I was activated for the vaccination missions and helped provide education and immunization services to thousands of personnel and their families across the state. I was very grateful to be part of the rollout and to be able to help prevent the disease that was causing the death of so many of my patients. By that time, I had lost over 200 people in my ICU and that was — and still is — weighing on me heavily. Those experiences encourage me to do more and do better for those that I can, when I can, and where I can.

Did your military training aid you in your civilian career? If so, how?
Absolutely. The training that I have been given as early as when I was a private in the Army and an ROTC cadet over a decade ago, gave me the confidence to be both humble and assertive when necessary. This allowed so many of us to lead when necessary and follow when it was the right time. It created an atmosphere of collaboration, and one that I think that helped us save as many lives as we could. This was a common story with many service members – in and out of uniform – across the country’s hospitals. Ultimately, I think my training only solidified my belief that we are all capable of so more than we expect.

What do you love best about what you do as a healthcare provider?
Being able to give back to a community and a country that is giving me so much is profoundly humbling. This gives me purpose and the chance to do something about what I see in the world and help where I can. Hopefully, this encourages others to see the best of others and do what they can, when they can, and where they can.

What’s next for you?
Less than two weeks after receiving the award, I was deployed to serve as a critical care specialist. I look forward to returning home in a few months, rejoining my civilian hospitals, and working to help improve processes on the ground with my peers and our neighborhoods. I think also focusing on the simple things like reinvesting my time and energy, and those that mean most to me is also important. If the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that family is everything, and that we should never take life for granted. Giving back to my family, our neighbors, and our country means so much and I hope to continue to do so for years to come.