Pediatrics Specialist Wins Patients’ Hearts By “Getting Down on Their Level”

Tara Matthews, MD '99, development behavioral pediatrician at Children's Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, NJ

Tara Matthews, MD ’99, is a development behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, NJ.

For development pediatricians like Tara Matthews, MD ’99, being a good physician comes down to more than just a diagnosis, or knowledge, or treatment. Because of the unique patient population for which she provides care, she must emphasize learning what brought the patient to her office to begin with, and what makes him or her tick.

“In medical school, learning to care about patients and being compassionate is as important, and possibly even more important, than getting straight A’s,” Dr. Matthews said. “You need to listen to the patient because if you hear the clinical history and story from the patient, you will be able to figure out what’s going on with them.”

That is especially the case in her role as a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, NJ, yet it is not always easy. “Children are not little grownups,” she said. “You have to make the child feel comfortable and get down on their level.” Taking parents’ concerns and questions seriously is also imperative to success.

Since graduating from SGU, Dr. Matthews has spent the past 20 years working with young children in a variety of social, educational, and clinical settings, and has a special interest in Autism Spectrum Disorders. She focuses on children with a variety of development delays and behavioral issues, including children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other learning disabilities. The hospital network also offers outpatient therapies of all kinds for special-needs children.

In addition, if there is suspected behavior that warrants a medical investigation or neurological testing, the hospital is considered a first step for an evaluation, said Dr. Matthews, who is also the medical director of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders program at the FAS Regional Diagnostic Center at Children’s Specialized Hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six children aged three to 17 years were diagnosed with a developmental disability, during a study period of 2009 to 2017. These disabilities included autism, ADHD, blindness, and cerebral palsy, among others, as reported by parents.

“I was really drawn to children with special needs, particularly those with autism. I somehow understand these kids, I get them, and these children are more relaxed with me.”

Following her pediatric residency at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Dr. Matthews worked as a hospitalist for seven years and held a short stint in private general practice. After seeing several patients in the practice who had autism, it bothered her that she couldn’t give children with developmental issues the extra individualized care they needed.

“I was really drawn to children with special needs, particularly those with autism,” Dr. Matthews, who is an aunt to several children, including one with autism who holds a special place in her heart. “I somehow understand these kids, I get them, and these children are more relaxed with me.”

At the time, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School/Children’s Specialized Hospital had just restarted a fellowship in developmental behavioral pediatrics. Dr. Matthews was the first fellow in the program.

Dr. Matthews acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge with treating some patients. While some have accepted virtual telemedicine as a way to see their doctor (and for their doctor to see the children in their home environment), for others it has been more taxing.

“I miss seeing patients in person; many draw pictures for me. My patients tend to hug me all the time, so I miss the personal touch,” she said.

Tara Matthews, MD'99, development behavioral pediatrician, Children's Specialized Hospital, Mountainside, NJ


Dr. Matthews credits her time at St. George’s University to help define her career path, with a strong background in pediatrics.

“At SGU, I feel like we really learned medicine,” she said. “When I was there, I don’t even think they had an MRI machine. We really learned how to diagnose clinically as opposed to relying on all kinds of tests.”

During clinical rotations, “St. George’s gave me the opportunity to rotate at a variety of different hospitals that exposed me to so much more than many of medical schools in the US,” she added. “As a medical student, I saw a large variety of patients who had unique needs.”

While in Grenada, Dr. Matthews also volunteered at the local orphanage, which provided her first exposure to children with special needs.

“My experience going to the orphanage every weekend really taught me a lot,” she said. “You could already see some children who were developmentally delayed—from having poor nutrition, for example. You could also see the emotional effects of being abandoned and then growing up in an orphanage. I learned that children are so different developmentally and so many factors play into it.”


Dr. Matthews believed so much in her path to becoming a physician that she took advantage of SGU’s Alumni Referral Grant program to nominate her medical scribe, Earyn Calvis, who will start Term 1 in August.

Ms. Calvis “reminds me a little bit of myself in that she is very good with children. The kids really take to her. She puts her whole heart into the work. She was always willing to go the extra mile to stay later with me and to learn about the patients,” Dr. Matthews said. “She’s has the right motivation for being a physician.”

While it is still early in her medical education, Miss Calvis is considering a career in pediatrics, partially as a result of her inspiring experience with Dr. Matthews.

“I think from the first day I met her I could tell that she was always willing to put the patient first,” Ms. Calvis said. “It set her apart from other physicians I worked with in the past. Even when she was getting their history or updates, you could tell she really connected with the kids and that’s especially hard in pediatrics. You have to make sure that the patient, as a child, really trusts you.”

“Dr. Matthews had a good gauge of what to expect in her interactions with patients,” she added. “It was so great to watch because that’s the type of doctor I want to be.”

Do you know of someone who is hoping to fulfill their dreams of becoming a doctor? SGU has launched a new referral program for deserving candidates to support their medical school journey—accepted School of Medicine students who are referred by our grads are eligible to receive a financial scholarship of up to $20,000 towards tuition. With online classes ready to go, SGU is welcoming new students for the Fall 2020 term, which starts on August 17. Learn more or refer a candidate today.



–Laurie Chartorynsky

SGU Grads to Help Physician Shortage in Nevada

Several graduates of St. George’s University who recently started their residencies at hospitals in the state of Nevada were featured in an article by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Of the 14 residents who started this July, all but two are in family medicine or internal medicine, both areas where Nevada is in short supply of physicians.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which “really stresses a hospital system, particularly from a manpower standpoint,” having residency training programs is particularly important, said Dr. G. Richard Olds, president of St. George’s University.

More than 40 SGU graduates have matched into Las Vegas-area residencies over the past five years.

Patient of SGU Alum: “I Owe This Doctor Everything”

In a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times, pulmonary and critical care specialist Baljinder Sidhu, MD ’06, was praised for the role that he played in the treatment of a patient who was intubated and on a ventilator at Marian Regional Medical Center due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Even after receiving a plasma infusion, she remained extremely ill and it was recommended that she be moved to another facility to be put on a lung bypass machine.

To facilitate this move and avoid any adverse consequences, Dr. Sidhu accompanied the patient in an ambulance for the three-hour trip to Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

“I owe this doctor everything,” said the patient’s husband. “I’m not kidding you, this guy went above and beyond, riding in the ambulance all the way to make sure she got there safely.”

SGU Legacies: Father-Child MDs Share Love of Medicine

All of those who attend St. George’s University are warmly welcomed to the SGU family. But for many, the pursuit of a career in medicine is truly is a family affair—fathers, mothers, and then years later, their children. There are also brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and many more familial connections that are linked in the history of SGU.

To commemorate Father’s Day, SGU caught up with several physician graduates who either led the way for their children, or followed their father’s path to medicine.

Michael (’88) and Alexandra Lacqua (’20)

All her life, family and friends told Alexandra Lacqua, MD ’20, that she was just like her dad, Dr. Michael Lacqua, MD ’88, a reconstructive plastic surgeon in Staten Island, NY. Except she didn’t see it—at first.

The first inklings of her interest in medicine happened in high school, when she began to notice more often when patients would see her dad out in the community and thank him for his help. When Dr. A. Lacqua was in college, her dad founded a nonprofit organization—Healing Hands Abroad. The organization provides volunteer surgical care for underserved communities, scheduling trips to countries like the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Belize, among other places.

Dr. Lacqua, who is a triplet with two brothers and also has a younger sister, travelled to Belize several times with her dad to help with the mission work. It was during these trips that she began to envision herself in a career in healthcare.

“The first trip was the first time I saw him in that doctor role,” she said. “It was the first time I was ever in an OR with him and that’s when it started to click for me. I had always seen my dad as my dad, but now I was able to see him as the doctor everyone told me he was. And I could see he truly loved it.”

Dr. Lacqua is about to start an internal medicine residency at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL, on Monday. “The biggest thing I learned from him—especially on the mission trips—is to be an advocate for your patients,” she added. “He speaks up for them and always make sure their voices and their concerns are heard and validated. Patients know that and they really value that. That’s the biggest thing I want to take with me. I want patients to know that I am their doctor, and whatever it may be, we are going to work together to fix it.”

Dr. Michael Lacqua actually recognized that his eldest daughter had an interest in medicine when she was just a little girl.

“When she was younger, she saw me excited about going to work and the stories I told. She always asked about my emergency room visits—how did it happen, is the patient OK, how many stitches, etc.,” he said. “As I got into more elective surgeries, and she got older, she would ask more mature questions—they became more medically focused.”

“I want patients to know that I am their doctor, and whatever it may be, we are going to work together to fix it.”

Alexandra Lacqua, MD

And he noticed the dedication and perseverance in his daughter that it takes to be a good doctor.

“The best advice I could give her was to treat people as if they are your sister, brother, mother, or father, to treat them like they were your own family,” he said.

Dr. M. Lacqua said St. George’s University provided many opportunities—not only with the education but the exposure to variety and diversity on and off campus. “I began to realize that there is more to the world and appreciated more of what was happening in the world,” he said.

He hopes one day that Alexandra will take over the Healing Hands Abroad organization and mission work—and offer additional ways to support underserved communities around the world.

Dr. A. Lacqua said going to SGU was an easy decision for her, after seeing the success her dad has had as a surgeon. “I knew I would be in good hands going to Grenada,” she said.

Following her residency, Dr. Lacqua said she is considering specializing in endocrinology. “I like how comprehensive it is; I am interested in how hormones can really affect every part of the body—especially with diabetes and thyroid issues. I also like how you really get to follow your patients. l like having that time with the patient and being able to have those long-term relationships with patients,” she said.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Lacqua marked her graduation from SGU by having a small graduation ceremony in at her grandmother’s house with family, where her dad hooded her. Despite not being able to attend graduation at Lincoln Center due to COVID-19, “it was nice to mark to the day,” she said.

  • More Family Legacies

    The Sujkas: Joseph (MD ’14) and Stanley (MD ’82)

  • The Gilibertis: Francesca (MD ’10) and Orazio (MD ’82)

  • The Lahrmanns: Jeffrey (MD ’15) and Philip (MD ’81)

  • The Vazzanas: Virginia (MD ’17) and Thomas (MD ’85)

  • The Focazios: Cara (MD ’13) and William (MD ’82)

  • The Bagheris: Kaveh (MD ’87) and Kian (Term 3 student)

  • The O’Briens: Tracey (MD ’19) and John (MD ’81)

  • The Stranskys: Anna (MD ’19) and Martin (MD ’83)

  • The Lacquas: Alexandra (MD ’20) and Michael (MD ’88)

  • In 2018, Dr. Sarah Falk (right) accepted her diploma in 2018 from Chancellor Charles R. Modica, who welcomed SGU’s charter class, including Sarah’s father, Steven (pictured), to the university in 1977.

  • The Narulas. From left to right: Karan (Term 4 student), Samir (MD ’19), and Rajiv (MD ’89)

Rajiv (’89), Samir (’19), and Karan Narula (Term 4)

Rajiv Narula, MD ’89, is proud to keep the SGU legacy alive through both of his sons. His older son, Samir, is a 2019 graduate of the School of Medicine and a current surgical resident at Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, NY. His younger son, Karan, is currently a Term 4 student at SGU.

“I am super proud to have them doing what they are and of course going to SGU,” said Dr. Narula, associate section chief of occupational health at Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital and medical director of International Travel Health Consultants, located in Poughkeepsie, NY and New York City.

“SGU gets you ready for the real world of medicine by pushing you to succeed in a very competitive environment with all the needed resources, be it the physical layout of the school, access to study aides, clinical instructors, small study groups, etc.,” he said.

According to Dr. Narula, his son, Samir, is enjoying his surgery residency, while his son Karan aspires to be a cardiologist. Dr. Narula also has a daughter finishing up her undergraduate degree who aspires to go into dental medicine.

“My wife is a nurse, so naturally we have a special interest in health issues,” he said. “I am blessed to have gone to SGU and the life that it opened up to me. I showed them the positive sides of medicine—healing and comforting of people who are at a vulnerable stage in their life.”

Dr. Narula began his career practicing family medicine and made the transition to occupational health. Through the move, he was able to show his children that, in medicine, one can always make a transition into other areas of interest as long as you continue to study and learn.

When asked about the changes between when Dr. Narula started residency and now, he said: “I started residency in June 1990 when healthcare was very different. Managed care was about to start and change the field from fee-for-service with its own issues, to the issues that we see now with insurance overreach into healthcare decisions etc.”

He added: “Today, healthcare is driven by policy, the price of care, and technological advancements—everything is geared toward empowering the patient and toward the prevention of illness. Additionally, patients have much more access to information through the internet, and so it’s much more collaborative now. It makes things easier in a way.”

Despite all these issues in healthcare, the key relationship that matters is the special ones that exists between the doctor and the patient, he added.

Steven (’81) and Sarah Falk (’18)

When Sarah Falk, MD ’18, sat in lectures at St. George’s University, she was taught by some of the same professors who instructed her father, Steven, more three decades earlier as part of SGU’s charter class. It was special for her. When she was just 9 years old, he passed away due to a spreading infection stemming from a hairline fracture in his tooth, and now she too was journeying into medicine.

“Because he passed away when I was so young, my connections with people who actually knew him are very few,” she said. “It was such an honor to come to know people who knew him and were also part of my career path—like Dr. Rao, who remembered so much and said he used to ride motorcycles with him around Grenada. Every person I talked to had such a fondness for him. It was incredible to hear the memories they had of him.”

Sarah Falk seemed destined to become a doctor from a young age—her father an internist, her mother a psychiatrist. Even at a young age, she remembers the impression that her father made on his staff at his convenient care clinic in St. Petersburg, FL.

“I didn’t know the exact hierarchy there, but I do remember how much his staff just adored him,” she said. “I know that he found medicine to be very fulfilling, and I’m just so happy to be walking in his footsteps.”

March 12, 2018 was an emotional day for Dr. Falk—not only was it the anniversary of her father’s death but also the Monday of Match Week. She rejoiced upon learning that she had secured a psychiatry residency at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen School of Medicine in Johnson City, TN. This month, Dr. Falk completed her first two years during which residents provide inpatient care. For her third year, she will undertake outpatient services beginning this summer.

She hopes to further her career by entering a child and adolescent fellowship at this time next year. Dr. Falk is also passionate about fighting for equal healthcare access and rights for marginalized populations, including members of the LGBTQ community. She is proud to continue the legacy of physicians in her family.

“When I was young, I remember my parents coming home and how energized they were about how much they had helped their patients. And I wanted that,” she said. “So when I was deciding what I wanted to do with my life, medicine was always at the top and I never kind of strayed away from that.

“I think about my dad frequently and hope that I’m making him proud.”

– Laurie Chartorynsky and Brett Mauser

USDA Field Veterinarian Finds Dream Career Through Ensuring Animal Welfare

Autumn Unck, DVM '15

As a veterinary medical officer with the Animal Care unit of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, St. George’s University graduate Autumn Unck, DVM ’15, has a wide range of responsibilities that affect both humans and animals. And she loves what she does.

“My job is so diverse—every day is different—and that really helps satisfy my passion for public service,” Dr. Unck said. “That’s what got me into this. I have a passion for animals, public service, and giving back. The job incorporates everything I love.”

The Animal Care unit employs around 200 civil servants located around the US, including veterinary medical officers and specialists who have expertise with marine mammals, exotic cats, and primates. The unit conducts inspections of approximately 8,000 licensed or registered facilities annually under the Animal Welfare Act and each year it inspects over 1,500 horses at shows and other events for compliance with the Horse Protection Act.

As a field veterinarian, Dr. Unck performs inspections and assessments of the overall treatment of animals at various research facilities, zoos, licensed breeding facilities, and educational exhibitors, among other places, in her territory of Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. She is also responsible for evaluating the qualifications of facility professionals and to review protocols to ensure proper use and care of animals in research facilities.

“When it comes to research facilities and zoos—some of that is very controversial in the public’s eyes because they don’t understand what’s going on there. By being present and speaking to the teams that work there, I know these facilities have phenomenal vets and caretakers,” Dr. Unck said. “The biggest misconception is that the animals aren’t being taken care of. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We are really an advocate of making sure that that public is educated when it comes to these facilities.”

Dr. Unck’s other responsibilities include assisting with the implementation of the Horse Protection Act, by ensuring that horse shows safeguard against unfair competition. She is also part of the team that travels across the country to help out when there is a natural disaster or disease outbreak, such as the Newcastle Disease outbreak in 2016 in several counties in Southern California.

Following a natural disaster or outbreak, “being able to step in and provide some type of comfort or relief [to farmers], by letting them know that someone cares in their time of need” is particularly gratifying, she said.



Dr. Unck acknowledged that while travel for her job has been temporarily curtailed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining relationships, such as with the regulated facilities and horse owners/exhibitors is imperative.

“We are constantly checking in to see if they have the support they need, or if they have questions or concerns,” she said.



Dr. Unck grew in up Southern California and fell in love with animals at an early age. She clearly remembers visiting San Diego’s Sea World, at which she was invited to pet the famous killer whale, Shamu. “To see the huge massive animal diving and being entertaining, yet so delicate and graceful in front of me—at one point he looked at me and we locked eyes and that’s when I became hooked,” said Dr. Unck, who is the proud fur mom of three rescue dogs, and a donkey she brought back from the Caribbean.

Yet before setting her career sights on vet medicine, Dr. Unck said she considered entering the military or public service. “I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I was graduating from undergrad and vet school when the US was sending people overseas,” she said.

Although Dr. Unck ultimately ended up in a career she enjoys, her path there was a bit winding. She transferred to SGU after initially starting her veterinary education at a different Caribbean school. It proved to be a positive move. Dr. Unck fondly recalls her interactions with SGU instructors and noted the advantages to leaving the US, including the ability to gain exposure to different experiences they wouldn’t normally have. Despite Grenada’s small size, she had the chance to work closely with a variety of animals and farmers, particularly when it came to receiving experience in large animal medicine.

Dr. Unck was also sure to get involved in a myriad of student-led clubs and organizations and to put in time at the University’s Large Animal Research Facility.

“Going to SGU was best of both worlds,” she said. “With veterinary schools in the states, you just stay at one school throughout your education. I had amazing didactic lessons in Grenada and then another year of clinical education at Cornell University.”

Finding a career opportunity within the USDA serves her desire to go into public service.

“I’m helping the helpless. Animals can’t tell you what’s wrong and many animal caretakers are not trained veterinarians, so they reach out to us for help,” she said. “It’s an awesome and humbling position to be in and I wouldn’t change it for the world. SGU made that happen.”


–Laurie Chartorynsky

SGU Vet Joins the Fight to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 at Children’s Zoo

Shannon Cerveny, DVM '07

Veterinarian Shannon Cerveny has watched over animals at Michigan’s Saginaw Children’s Zoo throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos courtesy Shannon Cerveny

As physicians, nurses, and other health professionals have treated human patients in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of One Health One Medicine—the philosophy that human, animal, and ecosystem health are intertwined—has become more visible now than ever, thrusting veterinarians such as Shannon Cerveny neé Shaw, DVM ’07, onto the front lines of the global health crisis.

“When the outbreak started, our first priority at the zoo was to concentrate on the health and safety of our collection of animals, our staff, and our guests,” said Dr. Cerveny, a veterinarian at Saginaw Children’s Zoo in Michigan. “It was critical that we quickly establish protocols to keep everyone safe.”

Returning to her home state of Michigan only four months before the COVID outbreak, Dr. Cerveny was quickly propelled into action as the first-ever full-time veterinarian at the zoo. Her new job entailed not only caring for the animals within the zoo’s collection, but included providing emergency medical and surgical care, developing preventive medicine protocols, evaluating animals in quarantine, assessing potential research and conservation involvement, and also providing input to the zoo’s occupational health program.

“With the discovery that COVID-19 was present in exotic felids at another zoological institution, I think it heightened the concern level of many zoo veterinarians, as we hoped to ameliorate any potential risks to our own animals and staff,” stated Dr. Cerveny. “Currently, we don’t have any felids at our zoo except for one lovely office cat. However, we do have nonhuman primates and mustelids that are also considered at-risk species. That’s one of the reasons why, although I am working from home when possible, I am still coming in to provide medical care to the animals, with the help of our veterinary technician.”

In addition to COVID being a health crisis, it has also quickly become an economic one. According to Dr. Cerveny, her zoo is currently not open to the public and therefore, it isn’t generating any revenue from ticket sales and concessions. Even though she believes the Saginaw Children’s Zoo to be in a good place financially, she knows that many other zoos are struggling to stay afloat.

“At the beginning of the outbreak, it was essential that as the zoo management staff, we create biosecurity protocols to keep everyone safe while coming to work and caring for the animals,” commented Dr. Cerveny. “Today, we are also continuously developing and refining those protocols to ensure the safety of both our staff and our guests when we can safely re-open.”

Dr. Shannon Cerveny – The Early Years

Before even deciding to become a veterinarian, Dr. Cerveny knew she was destined for a career working at a zoo. Having always had a passion for helping to care for and conserve endangered species, her very first zoo job was an internship as a penguin zookeeper at the Detroit Zoo.

“I love knowing that the work zoos are doing is having such a positive impact on global biodiversity,” shared Dr. Cerveny. “I also love to travel, and my career has taken me to some amazing places, including the Galapagos Islands to work with endangered Galapagos penguins.”

Dr. Cerveny grew up in the lake town of Port Huron, MI, graduating from the Honors College at Michigan State University with a degree in zoology in 2002. She then applied and was accepted into the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program at SGU. She completed her clinical year at North Carolina State University.

As a student, Dr. Cerveny recalls having several life-changing experiences, including traveling to Uganda in 2005 with several other SGU veterinary classmates to work on a research project with wild lions. After returning to the US with her veterinary medical degree safely in tow, Dr. Cerveny later held positions as a veterinarian at the St. Louis Zoo and San Antonio Zoo. She also did an internship and her residency in zoological medicine at Louisiana State University and the Oklahoma City Zoo respectively.

Today, she serves as the first full-time veterinarian at the Saginaw Children’s Zoo in Michigan. With the discovery of a link between wildlife trafficking and the current health crisis, Dr. Cerveny and her fellow veterinarians are answering the call to join in the fight for the benefit of human and animal kind.

“When I started at the zoo, we were just beginning to ramp up our preventive medicine program,” stated Dr. Cerveny, “but we had to scale that back when the Michigan order for ‘essential only’ veterinary procedures came through. We were also in the process of purchasing some much-needed diagnostic and laboratory equipment and I was just starting to become involved with some local Michigan conservation projects. I can’t wait to get back on track with all of it, and we are anxious to continue developing our veterinary program.”

–Ray-Donna Peters

Florida Emergency Medicine Doctor Shares Silver Lining of COVID-19

Megan Kwasniak, MD ’08, an emergency medicine physician at Saint Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, FL

Shortly after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic intensified, Megan Kwasniak, MD ’08, an emergency medicine physician at Saint Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, FL, took part in her hospital’s swift action to ensure it was ready to address sick patients.

To test patients, the hospital set up a tent outside of the emergency department to accommodate and screen any potential COVID-19 patients. Those showing more serious symptoms were quickly identified and then sent to the main emergency department for further treatment. Less sick patients were evaluated fully in the tent and discharged home to minimize the risk of exposure to the rest of the staff and other patients, she said.

Since early March, the hospital has seen and treated more than 1,000 patients who potentially had coronavirus. Almost all of those who indeed had the disease have since recovered.

“We have been able to fine-tune our treatment process and now feel much more confident in handling the disease. I have hope that this will continue to improve with time,” said Dr. Kwasniak, who pursues her interest in photography during her free time. She has also captured photos of how she and her colleagues were responding to the healthcare crisis on her blog, This Photography Life.

While COVID-19 has presented physicians and healthcare workers with tremendous challenges, Dr. Kwasniak acknowledged that her training as an emergency physician helped her to effectively “handle the unpredictable and the life threatening.”

“In any unknown situation, we are trained to go back to basics: airway, breathing, circulation. In that manner, COVID has been no different,” Dr. Kwasniak said. “No matter what course the disease would eventually take, the role of the emergency physician is to stabilize the sickest patients first and to begin a course of treatment that hopefully will affect the final outcome in the best possible way.”

The crisis also provided an opportunity for increased communication between healthcare workers, she said. Especially in the early days of the disease, “there was a frequent exchange of information among all physicians through various social media groups and within individual facilities,” she noted.

“I feel as though, for the first time ever, we have truly come together in the medical community,” she added. “The support we’ve shared has carried us through this pandemic and has definitely been the silver lining in an otherwise daunting situation. I have never before felt this connected to my fellow doctors, nurses, and all of the emergency department staff.”

Dr. Kwasniak offered new and aspiring physicians some words of advice while training: “By the time you start your residency, you will already have learned so much and be so much more prepared that you think you are. My greatest and most important advice to any medical student is this—get involved. Don’t wait on the sidelines, don’t be merely an observer, but take initiative and be proactive in your learning process. The best way to learn is through experience.”

Are you an SGU doctor succeeding in your career? Send us your story ideas. You can also share your story with us on social media by tagging SGU or using the hashtag #WeAreSGU and #SGUAlumni. 

–Laurie Chartorynsky

2020 Grad Getting Geared Up for Top-Choice Residency

For Shayda Pedram, MD ’20, there is no greater joy than helping to bring a new life into the world. Passionate about women’s health, she was ecstatic to match this spring at her top-choice program, New York Medical College at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center program in Paterson, NJ, where she is eager to begin her medical career as an OB/GYN resident this July.

“I was so excited and happy that it was real,” enthused Dr. Pedram. “I actually did it and all of my hard work and perseverance really paid off. During my clinical experience, there was nothing better than being present for a delivery and getting to tell new parents that their baby is healthy. OB/GYN can be a very positive and hopeful field of medicine and I love the way this specialty is able to combine medicine and surgery with continuity of care.”

Growing up in Overland Park, KS, Dr. Pedram attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human biology. She then chose to apply to St. George’s University for two main reasons. The first was that she didn’t want to wait a minute longer than she had to in order to become a physician. Having done the research, she knew that SGU would give her the best opportunity to pursue her medical education right away. The second was that coming from the landlocked Midwest, she knew she would enjoy the sunshine and proximity to pristine beaches that Grenada had to offer.

“I decided to apply to SGU because I didn’t want to wait to get into a US medical school,” said Dr. Pedram. “I knew that SGU would be the best choice to begin my medical journey, as well as provide me an opportunity for adventure. SGU allowed me to live in places I would have never lived and form lifelong friendships with individuals I may not have ever met otherwise.”

In addition to her academic studies, while at SGU Dr. Pedram became the secretary of the Persian Student Association and a member of the International Federation of Medical Students Association’s Sexual and Reproductive Health subcommittee. She also took advantage of the many student support resources provided by the University’s Department of Educational Success (DES).

“I really enjoyed going to the weekly student-led DES sessions,” commented Dr. Pedram. “These sessions were fun and helped me grasp what was considered high yield during my first year of medical school.”

When asked if the beautiful weather and beaches were distracting to her studies, she replied, “it was quite the opposite. You never felt as though you had to take advantage of every nice day, because the days were always nice on the island and the beaches even more satisfying after an exam.”

Today, Dr. Pedram prepares to go to work uniting with those in the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and joining 450 of her fellow soon-to-be St. George’s University graduates who will enter residency this July at nearly 90 hospitals throughout New York and New Jersey.

Eager to contribute, she credits SGU with preparing her well for her residency, having provided many opportunities to do electives in her field of interest in order to know what to expect as a resident. This includes her chance to experience a sub-internship at her first choice, St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, where she saw firsthand that their residents were well trained and very supportive of one another.

“The path to becoming a physician was never intended to be easy,” stated Dr. Pedram. “However, with persistence and hard work, you can absolutely make it happen. Attending SGU has been the adventure of a lifetime. It was incredibly challenging, but so worth it in the end. I am extremely grateful to now be in a position and have the skill set to help others in such a crucial time of need.”

– Ray-Donna Peters

Emmy In Hand, Former Television Producer Sets Sights on Residency

Benjamin Kahn’s story could be turned into a documentary, one that, in his past life, he may have assembled himself.

After all, it isn’t often that an Emmy Award-winning producer leaves behind the glitz and glamour to pursue a career in medicine. The 2020 St. George’s University graduate—a quintissential career changer—is now less than two months away from starting his internship year at NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island , at a time and in a place where care is most crucial.

“We are the first class of graduates to embark on our medical careers during these unsettling times in the middle of this pandemic,” Dr. Kahn said. “This is one of those life-changing events for our generation. And in facing this challenge, we not only join our brothers and sisters on the forefront in the battle to save lives from this novel virus, but we also get to set the precedent for the future and for those who will be following us.

“I look at this not only as a personal duty to grow into that role, but a privilege to serve my community the very best way I can and to take care of my patients with the greatest level of care.”

  • Dr. Kahn (left) worked for such outlets as NBC, ESPN, SNY, and The Glenn Beck Show prior to enrolling in medical school.

  • His work on the series “George to the Rescue” earned him a New York Emmy.

  • After becoming a medical student in his early 30s, Dr. Kahn is set to join residency at NYC Health + Hospitals/Coney Island this summer


Dr. Kahn’s career in television began at Syracuse University’s prestigious SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, which has produced such on-screen personalities as Ted Koppel, Steve Kroft, and Bob Costas. He earned his degree in TV and film production and set off to tell stories through his camera lens. His work included a documentary titled “A Walk in the Dark,” which chronicled how a man whose eyesight was taken from him following an automobile accident and then worked to overcome his disability to succeed in school.

“He hadn’t been back to New York City since his car accident and was afraid to go back there independently,” Dr. Kahn said. “My goal was to empower him and help him go back to face his fear. We went on a road trip to Manhattan and he was able to experience the sights and sounds of New York City again through a different perspective.”

The film won Best Short Documentary at the New York International Film and Video Festival and opened up doors for him in the world of television. He went on to work as a producer for such outlets as The Glenn Beck Program, ESPN, SNY, as well as NBC, for which his work on “George to the Rescue,” a home renovation series that helped local families impacted by tragedy, earned a New York Emmy Award.

With wear and tear from the job, however, he discovered that he had torn his labrum, an injury that required surgery. His hospital stay reinforced a feeling that he had been having of late—that he wanted something more.

“I felt vulnerable. I had never really hurt myself before, and it was a very difficult recovery,” he said. “My doctor was very integral in making a real difference in my life. He explained everything to me and become involved in my life. So I asked if could shadow him one day to see what it was like.”

When he did, it changed the course of Dr. Kahn’s life. He was struck by the doctor’s professionalism, interaction with patients, and impact on their lives.

“It lit a fire in my belly,” he added. “In TV, there’s an authenticity to everything, but there’s also an element of fabrication done behind the camera. But when I was shadowing him, I remember thinking ‘this is real.’ I just felt like I wanted to make more of a difference in people’s lives.”


“I look at this not only as a personal duty to grow into that role, but a privilege to serve my community the very best way I can and to take care of my patients with the greatest level of care.”

Benjamin Kahn, MD



With no science background, Dr. Kahn “took the leap of faith and never looked back.” He put up high marks on his prerequisite courses at Hunter College and Stony Brook University. It was then that he learned about the Emmy win—and opportunities that came with it—but by that point had committed to his second career.

“I made the decision that I was all in,” he said. “I felt like I had closure at that point, and that all the experiences that I had in television had led me to medicine. I learned how to perform in high pressure environments, to work well with a team, and that everybody is just as important as the next.”

At age 30, he applied to and enrolled at SGU. It took time for him to find a rhythm, but with the help of the University’s student support services, he developed strong study skills and test-taking habits.

While he described himself as being “all business” during his two basic science years in Grenada, he took in all that the island had to offer. The knowledge and skills he acquired set him up well to excel in clinical training, which he completed in Brooklyn.

“It wasn’t easy; I really had to work for it,” Dr. Kahn said. “In the end, I just feel so blessed to have been given the opportunity to become a doctor, and the confidence and the tools that I need to succeed.”

He’ll return to Brooklyn for residency at Coney Island Hospital, joining a 371-bed facility in one of the NYC Health + Hospital system’s 11 acute care facilities across the five boroughs. He will enter a transitional year and then turn his sights to continuing with a position in dermatology or internal medicine.

Coming from a family of dentists, from an award-winning stint in television, and making a late start to his second career, Dr. Kahn’s path to becoming a physician has not been a straight line, but he firmly believes that his experiences will only help his future patients.

“I have a different perspective on everything,” he said. “My background and my experience at SGU molded me into the person and the physician that I am today, and I look forward to getting started.” 

– Brett Mauser

Locum Tenens Doctor Steps into Key Role at New Jersey Hospital

“Can you start tomorrow?”

Alex Kurjatko, MD ’11, a locum tenens physician, was in Oregon at the time. The call came from Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, where COVID-19 continued to run rampant. He’s just one of hundreds of doctors who rushed to the tri-state area’s side to combat the virus.

In the span of 48 hours, Dr. Kurjatko obtained an emergency medical license in New Jersey—a process that usually takes weeks—made a pitstop at his residence in Minnesota, and traveled to Morristown to begin work on April 1.

“It’s nice to put my critical care training to use, and to return to an area where I did so many of my rotations as a medical student,” he said.

Dr. Kurjatko has been a locum tenens—Latin for “one who holds the place of”—since completing his surgery critical care fellowship at the Mayo Clinic. It has allowed him to travel throughout the US, obtaining licensure in seven states. Jobs tend to be in rural America where the physicians per capita can’t compare to urban areas. But with hospitals turning entire departments into intensive care units as a result of COVID-19, there was a dire need for physicians with critical care backgrounds.

Morristown has had to make some adjustments on the fly, with the projected number of intensive care patients challenging its capacity to hold them, necessitating new boundaries—and additional physicians. It was initially supposed to be a four-day stint for Dr. Kurjatko, but he’s now slated to work there through at least the end of May.

For Dr. Kurjatko, who has stepped into situations at crucial times before, it was a natural fit.

“Traveling has made it easy for me to step into situations like this and hit the ground running,” he said. “I don’t just want to sit back and watch everything happen and not be there to help people one way or the other.”

– Brett Mauser