Service comes in many forms — whether that is serving one’s country or serving patients.
University of Florida College of Nursing Doctor of Nursing Practice program (DNP) student Kevin Cho Tipton has had to balance these commitments as he aspires to embody what it means to be a Gator Nurse. A major in the Florida National Guard and a critical care nurse practitioner, Tipton was recently recognized with one of the nation’s highest honors. On Sept. 18 at the Songs for Hope: A Concert Celebration of the 2023 Surgeon General’s Medallion Awardees for Health, Tipton was presented with the Surgeon General’s Medallion — a distinction of great significance in the realm of American health care.
Tipton’s journey from being a DNP student to a recipient of this esteemed award was a testament to the unwavering commitment of health workers to the well-being of others. The Surgeon General’s Medallion, the highest honor a U.S. Surgeon General can bestow on civilians, was presented to Tipton in recognition of his contributions during one of the most challenging periods in recent history: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The evening’s recognition celebration was divided into three themes: Grief and Loss, Love and Healing, and Hope, each corresponding to the presentation of the Surgeon General’s Medallion. During the event, presenters highlighted details about the experience of Tipton, his patients, their families and his peers during the pandemic and his motivations for working in medicine. During the pandemic, he served in the intensive care units of Memorial Healthcare System and Jackson Health System – South Florida’s largest public hospital networks. During this time, his team struggled to manage the distress of losing up to 70% of their patients — sometimes including frontline physicians, caregivers and staff.
To increase awareness of health care worker burnout, Tipton uplifted the experiences of his patients and peers by sharing their stories. Using a personal online journal, he aimed to humanize the statistics surrounding COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths through anecdotes, while conveying the profound emotional toll the pandemic had taken on individuals and communities.
Tipton described his most desperate moments were during the Delta variant surge of COVID-19 in Florida, when he faced heartbreaking situations involving mothers and newborns, highlighting the immense weight that caring for COVID-19 patients had on patients, health care workers and their families His advocacy aimed to bridge the gap between the public’s perception and the reality of the pandemic’s impact. He has since continued to champion the well-being of medical workers, helping to rebuild their connections to the communities they serve.
While being recognized as one of the awardees, Tipton emphasized that this moment was not about him, but about the stories of those he helped share.
“I hope that our work and this moment made a positive impact on others — offering closure to a challenging chapter in our collective history,” he said.
Tipton stressed the importance of recognizing our shared humanity and the need to address the issues that the pandemic exposed. He urged everyone to do their best for each other and work together to fix the broken systems that the pandemic only made worse
Making Gator History
But his selflessness, service and achievements do not end there. A proud member of the University of Florida Family, Tipton will be the first Gator to receive this award. In addition, he will join another awardee from California as the first Asian American to receive this award, and will also become the first openly LGBTQ+ recipient. Having enlisted in the Florida National Guard during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, he kept this portion of his life a secret. Being able to now openly share this part of his life that was kept a secret for so long has put many things into perspective.
“I’m grateful and lucky to have the chance to be truthful about who I am, and hopefully that helps remind people to not only have empathy for others but to remember that ‘people are people,’ and that we all share so much more than we think – from our hopes and dreams to our families,” Tipton said.
As for being a Gator Nurse, Tipton feels it is a poetic part of his life.
“I am glad to be part of the best and brightest in the state of Florida. Our university has a global reputation and it’s awesome to be a Gator, but most importantly, I’m grateful to have the chance to learn at our nation’s No. 1 public institution,” Tipton said.
Ultimately, Tipton’s service to his country and his patients comes full circle, driven by a sense of purpose and the desire to give back to a country that gave him so much.
“I came to this country as an adoptee from Korea with nothing. My loving parents gave me everything I ever needed and our country gave me a home,” Tipton said. “In return, I have developed a deep commitment to our state It’s why I chose to join the National Guard – especially after my family went through Hurricane Andrew in the early ’90s. It’s one of my earliest memories, and being able to give back in similar times of need has been profoundly gratifying and humbling.”
With a goal of finding purpose in life, Tipton ultimately hopes that we can use this moment to all learn from each other and be there when our neighbors need us most.
“A lot of folks were there for me– especially when I was young. If I can be there for someone else – if we all can – then our work will always have meaning and the impacts we make will last a lifetime,” Tipton said.
- How the story all began.
- Neva and Dr. Shaik’s stories. I helped both of their husbands to try and save them from the pandemic, with the help of Dr. Murthy’s staff, but they both regretfully passed away.
- One of my two favorite photos capturing the moments that mattered so much to our painters and their families.
- An AACN interview.
- Another powerful storytelling moment.
- Remembering one of our paramedics.
- Another moment that might help tell the story of what happened in our hospitals.
- Part of the vaccine advocacy work with Dr. Fauci and the NIH.
- Educating military personnel on the pandemic.
- Remembering my nurses when I left for a military mission to help run Florida’s military COVID-19 vaccine program.
- Surgeon General Roundtable on hope and working on solutions to burnout by supporting our patients.
- When we thought it was over.
- Another moment that hit me particularly hard.
- The Please Campaign we began hoping it would convince folks to take care of themselves.
- Dr. Murthy’s Roundtable on combating misinformation.
- July 24, 2023 after a very sad passing of a father whose wife was also critically ill.
- CNN Interview on August 5, 2021.