Denzil Etienne, MD

Undergrad: St. George’s University
Residency: Internal Medicine, SUNY Upstate Medical University
Fellowship: Gastroenterology, The Brooklyn Hospital Center

You grew up in Brooklyn and did much of your medical training there as well, including most recently as a gastroenterology fellow at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. How much did that background play a role in your decision to stay on as an attending physician?

Brooklyn Hospital is a great place to work. There’s great diversity in New York City. The people are quite friendly and grounded, which is important when you’re spending long days here and it’s one of the main reasons I stayed. I also stayed to be in an academic position, figuring ‘what better place to practice than the place in which I was taught?’ We have a number of fellows on the floors and with us during procedures, so there’s quite a bit of teaching and mentoring that happens each day. That’s the nature of the position, and it is extremely rewarding each day.”

What has the transition from fellow to attending been like?

Whereas a fellow is usually concentrated on the nitty gritty of a clinical case, an attending is responsible for that in addition to various social, administrative, and financial factors surrounding it. I have found that once you understand the medical aspects, the rest falls into place. There was some trepidation to remain in a program where I did my fellowship, but the process has been quite a natural transition for me. As a mentor, it’s rewarding when you’re doing procedures with a fellow, and you see significant progression in skill level over the course of a few weeks or months.

How did your upbringing shape your future as a physician?

I was born in Venezuela, and spent my formative years both in Grenada and Brooklyn. Growing up in each place really grounded me. Health care in Grenada is quite different than the US. However, as is the case in many parts of the world, both places are have groups of people with less access to specialized medical services. That was one of the driving factors in my decision to become a doctor and later to become a gastroenterologist. It’s important to me, as a physician, to give back and serve people who would otherwise not have access to specialty medical care.

During my fellowship and now as an attending, I’ve focused a great deal on colon cancer screening and awareness. There really is a lack of it in many parts of the world. We need to remedy that because, while colon cancer can be a devastating disease if caught in its later stages, it is also quite preventable.

I have to thank one of my mentors, Dr. Marios Loukas, who helped form the research fellowship in Grenada. I was part of the first class there and that experience was very beneficial and a nice launching pad into residency and even further into fellowship.

Was becoming a gastroenterologist always the end goal for you?

Not at all. I grew up playing the saxophone and piano, so at one point I thought I was going to be a jazz musician. Eventually though, there was a stronger calling to humanitarianism which guided me to pursue medicine.

At the start of my residency I thought I wanted to become a primary care physician, working in the community. I gradually realized that what I enjoyed more was being an authority on one particular field of medicine, which in this case was gastroenterology. What’s great about gastroenterology is that it isn’t monotonous. For me, I sometimes do consulting rounds on the medical floors and see office patients in the morning and focus on procedures in the afternoon. There is never a dull moment.

What advice would you give to a student who is just beginning his or her studies at SGU?

I encourage them to keep an open mind about the academic and cultural experience that SGU affords. In addition to focusing on their studies, I would try to immerse myself in some of the different activities that are happening everyday on campus. It is also important to forge long-lasting mentoring relationships and friendships that help you grow as a person and eventually factor into you becoming a great physician.

Eric Vail, MD

Undergrad: Binghamton University

Residency/Chief Resident: Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, Westchester Medical Center

Fellowship: Molecular Genetic Pathology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

 

You grew up in New York. What prompted you to move out west?

Molecular pathology is a very small specialty, and it just so happened that the spots in New York were filled by the time I was applying. After that, I really wanted to live in Los Angeles over some of the other cities on the west coast, and I thought the training at Cedars-Sinai would be great not just in terms of academics but the practical, on-the-ground education that really propelled me into the position that I’m in now. By the end of fellowship, I was fully confident that I would be able to run a lab.

I met my wife, Selina Vail, during first term at SGU. She’s now a family medicine physician. We live two blocks away from the hospital, and she works at an urgent care center four blocks in the other direction, so it works out.

What type of personality does it take to be a pathologist?

Everyone says a pathologist has to be reserved and antisocial, but I think that’s a really poor way of looking at it. I’m the exact opposite. Even though I’m not dealing with patients, we’re dealing with the rest of the patient care team, whether they’re oncologists, radiologists, or other clinicians. Essentially, we help to formulate the basis for which patients get treated. Almost every patient in the hospital has labs, so the way I see it, we’re treating every single patient in the hospital even if we’re not directly seeing them.

In the lab, you mentioned that you have limited patient interaction. What are the pros and cons of that setup?

Pathologists are the doctors’ doctor. You’re the one that, in the end, everyone comes to, and it’s your job to say, “this is the diagnosis; this is the answer.” There’s a mystery there, a puzzle to be solved, and pathologists get to be the final arbiter on most diagnoses. It’s immensely rewarding. I definitely miss patient interaction, which is something that I enjoyed a lot during medical school, but it’s one of those things where you close one door and open another. I think the benefits of this specialty, in a professional and intellectual sense, far outweigh the negatives.

In addition to your work in the lab, you’ve been active in academia. What has drawn you to that role?

I’ve been an instructor for both small-group and large-group sessions since residency, and expect appointment as an assistant professor here shortly. My feeling is, what’s the use of having all of this information if you don’t pass it on to the next generation? It’s amazing to see when something just clicks with someone. You start talking about something and you can see the gears going, and then all of a sudden they just light up. It’s a great feeling.

How has the SGU experience prepared you to be a successful physician?

When you go down to the island, you’re faced with a situation that you’re not used to. You’re on your own, yet you make new friends and your success is based on your own skill and work ethic. You need to be able to perform and to do it in a way that is acceptable for everyone. The experience really sharpens your teeth and hones your drive.

But you can’t make a diamond without pressure. You need that sort of pressure to push forward. With all the pressure that comes with medical school—any medical school—there was ample opportunity to relieve stress if you could. I lived in Lance aux Epines and looked out at Prickly Bay. It was pretty ideal. That said, another great quality that that taught us was restraint, the ability to moderate both your work and your play. You can’t succeed by just working. You need to compartmentalize your life. Learning to do that makes you a better doctor and a better person.

My group of friends at SGU included some of the best, brightest, and hardest-working people who also knew how to relax when they weren’t under the gun. That sort of balance led every single one of them to be immensely successful. There’s nothing better than working hard all day, finishing up, and going on a sunset cruise. No American school can compete with that.

My experience at SGU was fantastic. I look back on the entire experience with nothing but tremendous fondness.

Roxana Mehran, MD

Undergrad: New York University
Residency/Chief Residency: Internal Medicine, University of Connecticut
Fellowship: Cardiovascular Disease, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

In addition to being an interventional cardiologist, you have long been an advocate for women in medicine. What drives you to be a pioneer in that initiative?

I want to see that there is equality and fair representation of women and minorities, not only as patients in clinical trials but also across the field of medicine. The number of female cardiologists delivering health care to patients is tremendously low–just 20 percent. And for interventional cardiologists, it’s under 5 percent. Women also earn considerably less over the course of their careers than men. My mission is to make sure that women are well represented and well respected.

Have the numbers improved over the years?

Not as much as they should. If you look at the last 10 years, the percentage of interventional cardiologists in the US who are women has stayed between 4 and 8 percent. I recently wrote in JAMA Cardiology that I felt women had cracked the glass ceiling, but we really haven’t. We’ve made important strides, but there is still so far to go.

For your work, you were recently bestowed the Wenger Excellence in Medical Leadership Award by WomenHeart, as well as Bernadette Healy Leadership in Women’s Cardiovascular Disease Award from the American College of Cardiology. What was your reaction for earning such distinctions?

I’m very humbled. These awards fuel the fire in me to continue this work and reduce cardiovascular disease in women and minorities. In fact, improving the care of women with cardiovascular disease also ties closely with my work to improve representation of female cardiologists. There is strong evidence connecting female cardiologists to improved outcomes for female patients. It’s unconscionable to believe that, in 2018, there’s discrimination against women in medicine. We have to stop that. It’s an honor to receive awards, but it’s not about the recognition. It’s about having a platform to help my fellow women colleagues, as well as patients, who are underrepresented.

Going back to when you were first getting started. How did a career in cardiology come on to your radar screen?

I was part of one of the very early classes of SGU, and very determined to build a career in medicine. I didn’t want to go into cardiology immediately, but my exposure to cardiology, my love for cardiology came when I was a fourth-year student at Mount Sinai Hospital. I remember working in the critical care unit and loving every single minute of what I did. Once I got to the catheterization lab, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, even if it meant working the crazy hours. Twenty-five years later, I can say very strongly that it was absolutely the right choice.

Can you elaborate further on the passion you have for this particular field?

Interventional cardiology is one of the most rewarding sub-specialties. We get to perform procedures involving cutting-edge science. I’m able to work on one of the biggest problems in the world—cardiovascular disease. We are literally saving lives every single day. To be in the driver’s seat for that, how much better could it be?

Paulina Buraczynski, MD

You were an environmental sciences major at Syracuse University. What prompted you to transition to a career in pediatrics?

“One summer, I started volunteering at a local children’s hospital. I saw how the nurses and doctors interacted with the children, and at times, I felt there was a minimal to no interaction at all with the actual patients but solely with the parents. I understand that children may be too young to fully understand what is happening and do not even have choice in the matter, but it doesn’t mean they should be left out of the loop. They are the ones that everything is happening to. It made a big difference once you explained in simple terms to the children what is happening and what will happen. I decided I wanted to change that mentality, that children should be part of the discussion.

“In pediatrics especially, it is incredibly rewarding to know that your hard work is going to change a person’s life, to see a child who’s knocking on death’s door recuperate and grow into a normal child that no one would even know the troubles they went through. I don’t know if there is a greater sense of personal satisfaction. The beauty of pediatrics is that you get to see your patient grow through life. You may have started to see them when they were just born and continue to see them until they are 18 or even over 21. You create a much stronger bond with the child and family.”

You became a mother recently. How did having a child of your own change your perspective?

“It has changed everything. It’s really been a total 180 for me. In the NICU, you know a woman has been preparing this child for 40 weeks, and if they end up in my unit we all know this wasn’t the way it was supposed to unfold. The version that has been building up for months is not in shambles. Fortunately for me, I never experienced what it was like for my daughter to be in the NICU, but I can only imagine how I would feel. The most joyous time in someone’s life becomes one of the worst. As a mother, it’s very difficult to be able to compare these women and what they are going through to yourself. You now can empathize with them, thinking of your little one in the position that theirs is in.

“It can be difficult to disengage at the end of the day, constantly thinking about the babies and parents. I feel a very deep connection now that I am a parent. It changes your perspective on the entire world, not just medicine.”

Can you elaborate further on the kind of relationships that you form with the families you see?

“Since I work in the NICU, you develop a very personal and deep connection with the families, and especially mothers. You are in the trenches with them, helping them through possibly the worst moments of their lives. Here in Hawaii the word ‘Ohana’ means family and togetherness, and ‘Aloha’ means love and unity, both words run very deep here. The Hawaiian culture is very family centered, which can make your job easier or more difficult. But once you have entered that sacred bond with the families, you become Ohana, a part of their family. I know this is very different when compared to other parts of the United States.

“Truthfully, everything you learn in medical school or during residency doesn’t adequately prepare you for the personal connection you need to make with families and patients. You learn how to read people very quickly and well, and that something that might work for one patient could be considered offensive to the next.

“My job is to help these babies come out of the NICU and live the most normal life they can, but also to give the family hope, patience, and love.”

Do you have a story from your time in the NICU that stands out in your mind?

“There was one scenario where we had a full-term baby who had hypoxic ischemic encelopathy (HIE). The directors of the NICU, PICU, and all of our specialists had thought it was a lost cause, that damage was too severe to continue on. After multiple discussions with the parents to withdraw care, they persisted to fight. Since Ohana and Aloha are big components of life here, this isn’t that uncommon. We all were convinced this was a lost cause and the child would never leave the hospital alive. That was a year and a half ago. After a few months of intense treatment, ECMO, dialysis, she was finally discharged at eight months. That same baby came back two months ago, and you would never have guessed the complications that she went through. There were delayed milestones and some other issues with vision, but otherwise as healthy as can be. You never would have guessed that this is the child that everyone almost gave up on. This situation showed us the true miracle of medicine and that we, even though we think we do, don’t know how the human body can respond. I see the miracle of modern medicine every day.”

Hawaii’s only your latest stop. You were born in Poland, and grew up in Canada and Syracuse, NY. How would you describe your experience as a student in Grenada?

“I loved it. I’m pretty adventurous and love to travel, so I had a great time exploring the island and the surrounding islands. Weekend getaways to different parts of the island were the norm, Fish Friday in Gouyave every other Friday, snorkeling, sailing, hiking, and the hashes. Grenada holds a very special place in my heart. I even met my husband there (Gautham Kanagaraj, MD SGU ’12), who recently finished up his cardiovascular disease fellowship at the University of Hawaii. I hope to take my daughter there one day and show her where it all began.”

Tanzid Shams, MD

Undergrad: Harvard University
Residency: Pediatrics, New York Medical College at Westchester Medical Center (2008-2010); Neurology, Columbia University Medical Center (2010-2013)
Fellowship: Clinical Neurophysiology, University of Texas Health Science Center

Why did you choose neurology for a career path?

“There are so many different things you can get into. For me, I was passionate about brain health and sports medicine, so concussion is the perfect overlap. I had done two years of pediatric training at Westchester Medical Center and three years of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center as part of a combined program, and that’s when some of the stories surrounding the NFL and how football players were demonstrating long-term psychological and neurological derangements.”

What have you done to expand health care coverage for the population in your region?

“When I joined three years ago, I was the only hospital-based neurologist for a 13-hospital network. We have since merged with another group, so we are now providing care for 29 counties in Tennessee, southern Virginia, and North Carolina.

“Over the course of the last three years, we have been able to transform our hospital from primary to comprehensive stroke center. Out of 5,000 or so hospitals in the United States, only 72 others have this designation. It’s very meaningful. The patients in Tennessee are so appreciative, and that really has a huge impact on your work-life balance. From the beginning, what I liked about this job is that it was an opportunity to build something from the ground up.”

How does rural health care differ from what you experienced growing up?

“I was raised in Bangladesh and went to high school in New Jersey. My time in the US has been in three big cities—New York, Boston, and San Francisco—so to work in Tennessee is eye-opening for me. Growing up in the northeast, I had no idea how underserved some parts of America are. If you’re in the northeast, you can choose from hundreds of neurologists. Here, it’s very meaningful to provide care to patients who don’t have a lot of access to medicine.”

You have said that you enjoying launching new projects. Can you describe some of your recent initiatives?

“I have been working on incubating several healthcare startups. The first one is called concussiontriagenetwork.com. The concept is that if a mom or dad is on the sidelines and their son or daughter takes a tough hit and looks groggy, they can use an app or iPad to dial up a neurologist and have a video assessment done within three to five minutes. Right now, it’s in a healthcare incubator and we have seed funding launch the company.

“My second startup is called Sentinel Healthcare, which is at a more advanced stage. Because it’s hard to predict who’s going to be sick, we built a health care platform that can take data from your blood pressure monitor at home, and we can monitor it remotely. We recently won the Seattle Angel Investor startup competition, beating out 64 other startups. We’ve been able to raise about $200,000 to this point and hope to build momentum toward Serie A financing.”

In what direction do you see digital health going in the future?

“Right now, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. One day I think that you’ll likely see health care data readily available to health care companies so that when people are at home and they’re hypertensive or suffering from sleep apnea or COPD, a system is set up so we don’t have to wait until people are sick. We’ll be able to see who’s getting sicker and give them the care they need immediately. It’s just a matter of how we can scale this process for 100 or 1,000 patients, how we can leverage technology, analyze the data, and make better health care decisions.”

Fariborz Rezai, MD

Undergrad: Rutgers University
Residency: Internal Medicine, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center
Fellowship: Pulmonary Medicine and Critical Care, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center

You’re in the process of converting the ICU at Saint Barnabas from a traditional model to a closed model. What are the benefits of a closed model?

The whole essence of a closed model is that everyone’s on the same page. The captain of the ship is an intensivist, who knows exactly what’s going on. The direction of the care is going in one direction instead of it being sporadic. If there’s a patient that comes into the emergency room, if the ER feels he or she needs it, they can call us for a consult within one hour. And it isn’t unique to the ER. If a patient’s on a medical floor, they’ve been sitting there for a few days and their condition worsens, a physician can call us and we can go up and provide care that they feel is appropriate. We have a very strong working relationship with all the disciplines in the other departments.

What is a successful day in the ICU? What is a difficult day?

A successful day and a difficult day can go hand in hand. A difficult day isn’t so much whether the work was hard or there was a high volume of work. A difficult day comes when a patient has passed away. It doesn’t matter if the patient is 108 years old or 22—a life is a life. No matter how old, having to be very involved with the family and giving them the news is a very difficult process, although it’s a very important process. At the same time, family members want honesty. They appreciate being 100 percent transparent with them and giving the best possible effort, whether it’s reviving a patient or bring them back to baseline. That’s what we do every day.

How do you evaluate your own success as an overseer of it all?

First and foremost, I want to make sure that the patient care delivered here is excellent. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure everyone feels that they’re a valuable part of the team. It’s important to recognize the contributions of everyone involved, whether it’s the social worker, the dietitian, the physician, or the one doing the surgical procedure. That’s the essence of it—everyone working together to take care of the patient. It’s important that everyone knows how much they’ve done and how much they’re appreciated.

What’s it like to be practicing near where you grew up?

I’ve lived here my whole life; I was born in Jersey City and raised in Florham Park. I see a lot of family members of individuals who I grew up with, and I have to admit, it can be a little weird, but at the end of the day, I do feel very valued because I’m here to save a loved one for them, or to cope with them.

Saint Barnabas is one of the 70-plus affiliated hospitals and clinical centers in the SGU network. What’s it like to see SGU clinical students rotating through?

When third- and fourth-year students find out that the director of the ICU at one of the largest health care systems in the United States is an SGU grad, I see their eyes light up. I go down to Grenada every year with the clinical faculty so I know what the curriculum is. I know that SGU has prepared them very well and that they have a good foundation of knowledge. I also know what they’re going through. I like to imagine them thinking about what the future holds for them. They’re nervous, they just came back to the states, and they’re trying to get their step exams out of the way. I can appreciate it, and I enjoy reliving those times with them. I myself am very lucky that I chose SGU.

Adrian Sosenko, MD

Undergrad: Saint Anselm College (NH)
Residency: Preliminary General Surgery, UMass Medical School

You recently obtained a urology residency at Penn State Health. How did urology come onto your radar?

“My father is a urologist in Chicago, and going into urology myself was one of my ultimate goals. I had been involved with urology medical device sales for almost five years before I went to SGU. Everybody kept saying that I was crazy to want to do urology because of how extremely competitive it is. There’s a high unmatch rate for grads of American schools, never mind foreign grads, but I’ve always wanted to do it.

“At SGU, I did well on my step exams and had 11 urology interviews, but I didn’t match the first time. At that point, I had to think of a backup plan, and I was fortunate to be offered a preliminary surgery position at UMass. I took it and did really well, and I even met Alayna, my future wife so it couldn’t have worked out better. I then had a few PGY2 urology interviews during intern year, including at Penn State, which offered me an interview for June 1.”

How did the interview process unfold and how did you find out that you’d been offered the position?

“Being a resident, you can’t take too much time off, so I ended up leaving at 6 pm on a Thursday after my call hours, and I arrived in Pennsylvania around midnight. I interviewed the next day until about 8:30 at night, and then drove home and got to Worcester at 2 am just in time for a 24-hour shift on Saturday. Not long afterward, I was doing a general surgery consult when my phone went off. I went into my office to look at my email, and it said that I had been offered the position. My heart may have stopped right then. I couldn’t believe it. Even now it’s still surreal.”

So your dad’s a urologist and here you are about to join him. How did you share the news with him?

“When I called him, he was scrubbed up to do a nephrectomy. He put me on speaker, and I told him that I got the position at Penn State. He was very ecstatic and started crying, so much so that he had to scrub out.”

What kind of role has he played in your life and your career?

“My dad has been very inspirational to me. For years, he’s worked seven days a week and in 11 hospitals, and if you talk to his patients, they’ll say that he sits down and listens to them. The patients come first, and that’s my mantra too. Whoever you’re treating, that’s someone’s mother, brother, or other family member.

“He lives to do the work he does. That said, he never pushed me to go into medical school or to go into urology. He just wanted me to be happy and to do what I wanted to do. In the back of my mind, I wanted to do urology. I wanted to one day take somebody’s bladder out with my dad, and to keep the family’s continuity of care for the next 40 of 50 years.”

Urology isn’t for everybody. What intrigues you most about it?

“Urology has been and always will be at the forefront of robotic surgery, and between that, the open surgery, and continuity of care with patients. It’s such a dynamic and challenging field. With the baby boomers and the number of urology resident spots still really low, there’s also such a high demand for urological services.”

Medicine wasn’t always in your plans however, correct?

“My dad’s dad was a doctor and his three siblings are doctors or in medicine, yet in undergrad, I wasn’t even thinking about it. With my mother being in law, I thought about going in that direction myself. I took the LSAT and did well, but just decided it wasn’t for me. After I went into sales and got to deal firsthand with thousands of patients as a device rep and OR rep, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. Sales wasn’t fulfilling enough.

“I eventually was put in contact with Ihor Sawchuk, the CEO of Hackensack University Medical Center. He told me about how they have a partnership with SGU, and if I was looking at a foreign medical school, it’s the best one out there. I enrolled in the postbacc program and made it through. What was nice was that, after my two years in Grenada, I was able to go to Hackensack for my first clerkship year. I was also able to do urology electives at places like the University of Washington, Illinois-Chicago, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and Hackensack.”

You may have taken a roundabout path to it, but you accomplished your goal of becoming a physician and a urologist. How does it feel?

“When I’m asked if I would change anything about my past, I say ‘absolutely not.’ I’m 100 percent proud of having gone to SGU. It’s made me who I am. We work harder than anybody, and the reality is we make really good residents.”

Dhruv Gupta, MD

Undergrad: Tulane University

 

Over the course of your life, you have lived in every corner of the globe. How has that experience shaped you as a physician and as a person?

“My father works in the oil industry, so every couple years we moved around. I’ve lived in India, Thailand, Venezuela, the US, Canada, Bangladesh, the UK, and Grenada. Living abroad has helped me because it’s taught me how to be adaptable and work with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and religions. When I meet individuals from cultures different from mine, I feel that I know how to work with them because of the varied experiences I’ve had communicating with others and thinking through challenging situations. My ability to readily adapt helps on the floors because I’m able to work with patients and establish a rapport with them no matter where they come from. Moreover, as a product of living in Venezuela, in addition to it being one of my undergraduate minors, I became fluent in Spanish. It helps tremendously in communicating with Spanish-speaking patients.”

 

How did your upbringing carry into your experience at St. George’s University?

“With my international upbringing, I was drawn to and enrolled in the Keith B. Taylor Global Scholars Program at SGU. England was a wonderful experience, and between basic sciences and clinicals, I really enjoyed living and learning in three different countries. Also, I was able to participate in the India selective in Karad, during which we really got to see the challenges that some physicians have to overcome to provide health care for their patients. It’s a situation in which you’re really asked to step out of your comfort zone.”

 

Why have you chosen psychiatry for your career path?

“I’m really passionate about psychiatry and looking forward to goindg deeper into the field. Various encounters in my life have led me to question what motivates human behavior. I took AP Psychology in 10th grade; one of my undergraduate majors was psych; I went on to do a master’s in psych; and my favorite clerkship during medical school was psych. It’s a lifelong passion of mine based on my experiences. Community mental health care is often stigmatized. There are many misconstrued conceptions. I really want to provide quality psychiatric care, but also to treat a person holistically, with deeper biological, behavioral, and social influences in mind.”

 

You actually accepted the psychiatry residency position at Mount Sinai Elmhurst well before Match Day. How did that come about?

“Less than a day after I interviewed there, I received an email from the program director indicating that they really liked me and would like to offer me a position in their program. I was really surprised because I didn’t know that was something that they could do, but it was very relieving. I’m excited for the opportunity.”

 

Days after officially becoming a doctor, you attended to a patient experiencing an in-flight emergency. What role did you play in her treatment?

“I was headed to India with my mom for a few days, and shortly after takeoff from London, a medical emergency was called onboard. There was a loud thud in the bathroom followed by a page for physicians on board. A passenger had collapsed in the bathroom and was found unresponsive. I initially wondered if there was anyone with more experience—I had just graduated—but I explained that I could tend to her, relying on the knowledge and skills I have gathered over my SGU career.

First, I checked to see if she had a pulse, which she did. We helped get her to the closest seat possible, took her blood pressure, wiped her face with water, and tried communicating with her. She eventually became aware of her surroundings. Her blood pressure ended up being low and her heart rate elevated, and when I examined her, I noted that her tongue was dry, and that she was severely dehydrated. When I began to speak to her, she explained that she had only had a cup of coffee that day, and when she was in the bathroom, everything had gone dark in front of her and she collapsed. I went on to listen to her heart and lungs. We were able to stabilize her with electrolyte solutions available in the first-aid kit, and restricted any further caffeine and/or alcohol consumption over the course of the flight. As the flight continued, we continued to monitor her and make sure she was feeling better.

It was a big moment for me because it was my very first unsupervised clinical experience. I’m incredibly thankful to SGU for the knowledge and skills that they have provided me that helped me attend to the situation onboard, and moreover, for making my dream of becoming a physician a reality.”

Jeff Vacirca, MD

Current Positions: CEO/Managing Partner and Chief of Clinical Research, New York Cancer Specialists; President, Community Oncology Alliance; Medical Director, ION/ABSG; CEO and President, National Translational Research Group

Undergrad: University at Albany

Residency: Internal Medicine, Stony Brook University Hospital

Fellowship: Hematology and Medical Oncology, Stony Brook University Hospital

 

How has New York Cancer & Blood Specialists fit into the puzzle for patients seeking cancer treatment?

“Historically, people felt like they had to drive 100 miles to be seen at a major cancer center. Now they realize that they can get the same care, or even better care in many instances, a mile from their house. People don’t have to go far anymore. If there’s a challenge and they need us, we’re right down the road. They can come right in and be seen within an hour. As a community-based cancer center, our goal is for our patients to be treated in the most convenient place possible, in addition to being in a place that has cutting-edge medical care. We want to give them every advantage that a patient could get anywhere else in the world, right where they live and work every day.

Your organization has 25 locations on Long Island. How does the kind of care you provide differ from other hospitals and clinical centers?

“It makes a tremendous difference for us and for them. Patients come into our office and they’re not a number. They’re recognized in every one of our centers because our staff knows who they are. We’ve tried to make it such a place where it isn’t scary.”

How do you believe that oncological care differs from other fields of medicine?

“There’s an intimacy in this field between patients and caregivers that you rarely see. The physicians become almost part of the family in taking care of patients. Also, this is probably the only medical specialty where we have new therapy that comes out to help people almost every month. To me, that’s pretty remarkable. We’re very fortunate in that our cancer center has been on the leading edge in helping define what these new therapies are going to be.”

You mentioned a unique intimacy to the doctor-patient relationship. In addition to the connections you make with your patients, how do you manage your emotions during the difficult times?

“Emotionally, it’s a difficult field of medicine to work in because, no matter how good we are, there are going to be people who die from cancer. It means we have a long way to go in defining what the best treatment is for patients. At the same time, even when we try our best, the outcome has sometimes already been determined. That in itself makes this a tough field for a lot of people to be in. You need to have those small wins every day. Just yesterday, I sat with a woman with metastatic breast cancer who I’ve taken care of for over eight years. I had to have a discussion with her where I said that we couldn’t give her anything in terms of treatment moving forward, but we could do some things about her quality of life in the time that she has left, to make it as meaningful as possible. Even though that was a really tough discussion to have with her, at the end of the day, she felt good about what she was doing and what we’ve been through together, so we’re able to see the next person and keep that positive feeling with you.”

You went from Long Island to Grenada and back. How has attending SGU shaped you as a physician?

“My experience at SGU forged an unbelievable independent group of doctors who worked together through everything. Now as I’m on the other end of it and I make the decision on who’s hired, when I see SGU grads, they get interviewed first because I know what they’re made of. I know how hard we worked, and I also know that they realize the value of teamwork. They know that they have to get through things together. They’re going to be smart, and I’ve yet to meet someone from SGU who wasn’t hard-working and in the field other than for the love of medicine.”

Salvior Mok, MD

Undergrad: University of British Columbia

Residency: General Surgery, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

Fellowship: Cardiothoracic Surgery, Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Adult Cardiac Surgery, Yale-New Haven Hospital; Robotic Cardiac Surgery, Cleveland Clinic

What do you most enjoy about your current role?
“What I do is very rewarding because we can really be the difference between life and death a lot of the times. We take the best care of our patients as we can, and they and their family members are very grateful that we help.”

Going from law enforcement to medicine is an unusual transition, but you were in fact a police officer before entering medical school. What prompted you to change fields?
“I was with the police force for three years, but eventually felt that I wanted to do something more. As I got further away from being in school, I realized that sooner or later I couldn’t go back, so I decided to go to medical school. A friend of mine, Kenneth Yeung, MD SGU ’02, who has gone on to be very successful, had good things to say about SGU. I didn’t apply to any other school. The decision was easy for me. It’s a great alternative not only for people in the US but for people like me from around the world.”

You came to Buffalo after training at the acclaimed Cleveland Clinic. How has that experience prepared you for your position at Mercy Hospital and Catholic Health.
“Patients come from all over the world to Cleveland Clinic, which exposed me to diverse and complicated cases. It was a great training environment.

I’m very happy to be here at Mercy Hospital. The cardiology team is excellent and all the partners are wonderful. We work well together, and I feel as though I’m a valuable part of the team. It’s been a great experience so far.”

How would you describe your SGU experience?
“The campus and the island were really beautiful. I had a great time, and I made some friends who I still keep in touch with. Between the various lectures, the visiting professors, and doing my third- and fourth-year rotations at different locations, I was very well prepared.”