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

DEFINING HER CAREER PATH IN PEDIATRICS EARLY ON

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.”

ALUMNI REFERRAL

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

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

SGU Class of 2020 Joins Physician Ranks During Crucial Time in Healthcare

The format of this year’s St. George’s University School of Medicine commencement ceremony may have been different, yet it could not put a damper on the achievement, the celebration, and the pride felt by the Class of 2020 on Sunday.

For the first time in the school’s 43-year history, graduation festivities were held online as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, with families and friends from around the world tuning in to witness graduates’ official transition from medical student to physician.

This class of graduates will bolster a healthcare system at a time when highly skilled and knowledgeable physicians are greatly needed. All told, more than 1,100 SGU grads will begin first-year residency programs next month—across a wide range of specialties—in the United States and Canada. They are now part of a network of more than 18,000 SGU-trained physicians who have earned their medical degrees from SGU since its opened its doors in 1977, and over 22,000 grads in all schools.

The 2020 ceremony took place as the world’s attention has been focused on the fight for racial equality in the United States and around the world. Dr. Charles Modica, the University’s chancellor and co-founder, stated that SGU graduates are uniquely positioned to bring positive change to the world.

“St. George’s University has diversity in its core DNA,” he said in his address. “This class includes individuals from over 60 countries, all of whom have studied in Grenada—our home—and worked, lived, and played side by side for years with people from every race, color, creed, and nationality. Our faculty as well as our students are among the most diverse in the world. The totality of your multicultural experience at SGU will prepare you to be an exemplary citizen of the world as well as an extraordinary medical professional.”

Dr. Marios Loukas, dean of basic sciences in the School of Medicine, cited Aristotle in his address:“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

Dr. Loukas acknowledged that this year’s graduates took many different routes to come to SGU and to earn their MDs, but each is prepared to carry out a mission of helping humanity in their chosen field.

“It has taken hard work, constant effort, repetition, courage, and a lot of energy to overcome challenges, but you have ultimately done it,” he said.

Among those who earned his medical degree was Suyansh Sharma, MD ’20, a native Indonesian who will be headed off to an internal medicine residency at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. He is one of more than 450 graduates from the Class of 2020 who will begin their careers in New York and New Jersey this summer.

“I don’t think words can describe the feeling,” said Dr. Sharma. “I remember dreaming about this day when I was still on the island. I feel very grateful, especially to my parents along with SGU, each of which have given me an opportunity to come to the United States and practice medicine. I feel ecstatic that I’m going to be able to serve my community in a way that I think is really meaningful.”

Classmate Emily Wassmer, MD ’20, looks forward to joining residency at her top-choice pediatrics program, Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, NY. After four years of medical school, seven different apartments and six different clinical training sites, she looks forward to practicing medicine at the very hospital she visited as a patient growing up on Long Island.

“It’s exciting, scary, and surreal,” said Dr. Wassmer. “It’s exciting to have all of these years of hard work finally pay off and to be able to settle in one place for a few years. It’s scary that we now have the autonomy to be responsible for our patients’ lives and that we’re going into this in the midst of a pandemic. And it’s surreal that it’s actually happening and we really are doctors now.”

To equip graduates with the proper graduation attire, the University sent robes and regalia to each new alum, and many shared images from before, during, and after the ceremony on social media. In lieu of an in-person ceremony, the Class of 2020 will be invited to walk with its SGU brethren at the traditional graduation site—Lincoln Center in New York City—next spring.

SGU’s web page celebrating the class of 2020 School of Medicine graduates captured students’ moments of celebration—on social media, with photos, and through stories. Visit the page online.

–Brett Mauser

Highlighting the Student National Medical Association: A Conversation with Leadership of the SGU Chapter

SNMA President Tom Diamond II, and Vice President, Jhanae O'Guin

The Student National Medical Association (SNMA) is a national association that is committed to supporting current and future underrepresented minority medical students by addressing the needs of underserved communities, and increasing the number of “clinically excellent, culturally-competent, and socially-conscious physicians.” SNMA chapters are based at allopathic and osteopathic medical schools throughout the US, with programs designed to serve the health needs of underserved communities and communities of color.

In addition, SNMA is dedicated both to ensuring that medical education and services are culturally sensitive to the needs of diverse populations and to increasing the number of African American, Latino, and other students of color entering and completing medical school. The SGU chapter of the SNMA has nearly 200 members and implements programs that benefit underserved communities in Grenada.

We spoke with SGU Chapter President Tom Diamond II, a soon-to-be Term 5 student and aspiring cardiologist, and Vice President Jhanae O’Guin, a Term 3 student and aspiring OB/GYN, who shared their perspectives on the importance of the organization’s mission, not just now but year-round, and how students can get involved.

What is the overall mission for the Student National Medical Association?

TD: Our mission is to simply diversify the face of medicine, both at the physician level by increasing the number of minority physicians and physicians of color, and also at a socioeconomic level, where physicians use their skills to treat people in low-income and underserved areas—areas that are so-called medical deserts.

 

What does the organization do to champion equality in healthcare career throughout the year?

JO: We do a lot of mentoring. It can be a very hard road as a physician, period, but as a minority physician, it can be even harder. So being able to reach out to someone who took that class or that session before you, who can give you valuable advice that you can trust, who is walking a similar pathway to you, is a big part of what we do. We are hoping to ramp up our mentoring program even more this semester than ever. We think it’s very important because, as Tom was saying, these physicians are going to go into these medical deserts and it’s critical that we talk about the importance of how patients see their doctors—if they feel like they can identify with them, they are more likely to have better health.

Can you share examples of the activities that the SGU chapter has done on the island to enhance medical services to underserved communities?

JO: We partner with local Grenadian schools to mentor local children and we call it “mini med school.” The goal of that activity is to get local Grenadians interested in medicine. And we also know that in general, if we can bolster these programs and also create these pathways for these students, that the healthcare system in Grenada could stand to be improved that way.

Another program that we do is we raise money to support JJ Robinson Trust scholarships for children. That’s important because we know, in general, educational outcomes are associated with good health outcomes. We typically do a game night to raise the money for a scholarship program.

Lastly, and probably most notably, is our diabetes clinic. I had the pleasure of being the diabetes clinic coordinator this past semester. This particular program is so important because it targets diseases that are impacting minorities at a disparaging rate. So, during these clinics we do high blood pressure monitoring; diabetes monitoring; we check vision deficits; and we counsel on nutrition and good overall health. And we give Grenadians an opportunity to also consult with SGU-trained physicians, who we partner with to do this event. Every year, we go to a different parish and it gives Grenadians the opportunity to interact with us, for us to get some hands-on experience, and of course help the community.

Why is it important to showcase diversity within the medical profession?

TD: In medicine, one of the things we learn about is contributing factors and its impact on health prognosis. A contributing factor to a diagnosis may be miscommunication. If a person cannot relate to you or there’s any type of communication barrier that impacts the prognosis, that impacts the probability of a healthier, better outcome. If you don’t understand what a patient’s lifestyle is, if you are not able to communicate with them about their eating habits, where they live, the environmental stressors that they face, you’re going to miss how to assess and how to interact with that patient. That’s why it’s so important to diversify the face of medicine. We need people who understand medicine and who will be able to relate to patients.

How do you feel that the campus’ overall diversity has contributed to your academic experience? How do you think it will help you in your eventual careers?

TD: SGU has physicians and facilitators from all over the world. I’m going to quote one of my favorite professors, Dr. Kesava Mandalaneni who said that “Accent is the paint brush of life. And that gives us the color to how we live.” You become used to speaking with patients who may not sound like you, who may not pronounce the same words the way you do, who may not have the same cultural background as you, but on a daily basis, we meet people from different countries and you learn to communicate with them.

JO: I agree 100 percent with that. And it does make you more attentive to people when they’re speaking, because you want to try to do your best to catch what they’re saying. And I think it’s important as a doctor to be a good listener. So being able to de-code what someone’s saying is an essential tool as a great physician.

I would also say that being at SGU, the students are coming from many backgrounds, countries, and cultures. And I think that has been enriching experience. And while there are more initiatives for diversity that can be implemented, including increased workshops, possibly a selective on health disparities affecting communities of color, and inclusion of minority students on decision-making boards, I believe that this experience at SGU in particular will contribute meaningfully to a career as a future physician because we’re interacting with different cultures already and getting some basis for what their cultural norms are.

This also highlights the meaningfulness of SNMA at SGU because we are an organization that is trying to encourage different cultures to come together. And I always like to use the example that when I came to SGU and I joined SNMA, that’s where I met Tom. Tom saw me studying in Taylor Hall and offered to help on me on a topic I was studying. This interaction empowered me to forge a relationship with him and ask him to be my mentor. And now he is my mentor. Without the SNMA, I probably would not have had that opportunity.

In what ways have the recent events in the US reinvigorated you on your path to becoming a physician?

TD: That’s probably the biggest question of today for the answer is multi-faceted. Many people like me set out as first-generation physicians of color, first-generation physicians of our family, and first-generation physicians in our communities. It’s not that blacks and African Americans don’t want to get into medicine—there is some kind of invisible barrier that stopped them from being able to move in.

There are four historically black colleges or university medical schools in the United States…for a population of people that represent 13 to 16 percent of the nation. So, there is no equality at the level of even physician training. And then you look at what’s happening in the world right now. It’s just a reminder that racism is still present. Unfortunately, it’s ingrained into American society in some ways to the degree that people don’t even understand how their actions affect others, because they’re so used to doing it.

One of the things that’s been damaging to myself and students all across the country and, and especially SNMA nationwide—we have medical students right now who are having to focus on rigorous curriculums while being online, and on top of all that they’re experiencing trauma (from the recent news of George Floyd’s death). Without letting it bog you down or mentally deter you; it should light a fire under you and invigorate you to understand that I have a part to play in eradicating racism. We all do. But more specifically, I have a part to play in eradicating racism and health disparity for people of minorities and for everybody by giving people healthier lives, by standing up to institutions that deny people access from basic need of health. And so as hard as it is, especially at moments like this to focus, it’s your responsibility, it’s your burden. You feel a charge to produce these outcomes for yourself in order to be able to impact the community at large.

JO: I’ll just follow up and say, maybe you’re not able to be on the front lines, doing your part in that way, but in a lot of ways, being in medical school as an African American, that is doing your part, because you want to be in a position where you can pour back into your community. So if anything, when it’s hard and you’re taking that class or you’re getting ready for that test, and you’re seeing this happening, you can’t give up, not only in yourself, but because you have people counting on you to be the change that people are so desperately on the front lines fighting for.

What inspired you to become a doctor? What are your future career plans?

TD: I’m from Jacksonville, FL. I am a graduate of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. One of the things that inspired me to become a physician is that, in the area of the city where I grew up, there is a major health disparity as far as simply just it’s a medical desert. There is one hospital that sits centrally located that is supposed to service the entire north side. You have quarter of a million people who live in this area that have one hospital.

The second reason is just the lack of representation that I saw growing up. And I knew that this is an area of concern. African Americans lead nationwide in cardiac disease, hypertension, diabetes—those kinds of things. I have a passion for helping people. And so, it led me here, and thank God it led me to SGU because the school is allowing me to chase my dreams. I want to go into internal medicine and eventually enter a fellowship in cardiology.

JO: When I was in kindergarten, I got this Mason jar that my teacher said I shouldn’t open until I graduate. Well, graduation came and went, I had already completed a semester of undergraduate college, I was already involved in a medical academy, and I finally opened it and found this piece of paper. My teacher asked me what I wanted to be—I told her I wanted to be a doctor. It even surprised me because I don’t remember wanting to be a doctor. I thought I wanted to be a teacher before, but apparently when I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a doctor. So, this pathway is in a lot of ways for me a self-fulfilling prophecy derived as a kindergartener.

I am from Houston, TX. I went to Prairie View A&M University. And then after that, I continued my education to get my master’s degree in public health in health promotion and health education with a concentration in maternal and child health, bolstering my passion for women’s health. There are just a lot of disparities, including infant mortality and low birth-weight babies that are affecting people of color and just bad maternal outcomes for women of color. So, a lot of that has been a catalyst for me wanting to go into obstetrics and gynecology. If not that, I know that I want to work in primary care. I can impact the most people in helping with these chronic diseases and ailments that are impacting my community. And so, all of that’s very important to me because I believe that women’s health is the foundation of good family health. Because when we have healthy mothers, we have healthy children and healthy spouses.

The SGU chapter of the SNMA is actively welcoming new members for the August semester and will be transitioning many of their programs to a virtual setting. Students who are interested in joining are welcome to reach out to the organization via its Facebook and Instagram pages.

–Laurie Chartorynsky

 

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

SGU Vice Chancellor Liebowitz Featured in International Business Times

Graduates of SGU's School of Medicine

An op/ed piece by SGU Vice Chancellor Dr. Richard Liebowitz was recently featured in the International Business Times.

The article, Coronavirus Response: How International Medical School Graduates Can Help Fight COVID-19, explained the important role that international medical schools play in training highly-qualified students who eventually become much-needed physicians in the United States, especially when it comes to providing healthcare services to underserved communities.

“To reduce the threat posed by COVID-19—and other infectious diseases like it—our healthcare system must do a better job managing, treating, and preventing chronic disease, especially in vulnerable populations,” Dr. Liebowitz wrote. “Primary care physicians can do that job. And there’s no better source of primary care physicians than international medical schools. It’s time to bring more of their graduates in—and expand post-graduate training capacity to allow them to further their careers as US doctors.”

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

SHOW BIZ

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

 

A NEW FRONTIER

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

SOM Students Take Altruistic Initiative During COVID-19 Pandemic

SGU Students Take Altruistic Initiative During COVID-19 Pandemic; Reaffirm Their Commitment To Becoming Doctors

Healthcare workers around the world, including many St. George’s University alumni, are providing heroic care for patients suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19). And much like their physician comrades, School of Medicine students are drawing on the qualities that have inspired them to train for a career in healthcare by stepping up during the COVID-19 global health crisis.

“Compassion, empathy, commitment, and respect are all critical qualities needed to be a good doctor,” said Dr. Richard Liebowitz, vice chancellor of St. George’s University. “We are proud of these students and admire their desire to help those in need.”

SGU interviewed three students who each said their recent experiences helping during the pandemic has reaffirmed their desire to become physicians.

SERVING HIS COMMUNITY AND COUNTRY

Connor Berger (left), MD' expected 2022

Connor Berger (left), a third-year medical student at SGU and a former Marine, has volunteered with the Medical Reserve Corps to care for homeless people who have contracted COVID-19.

For the past six weeks, Connor Berger, a third-year medical student at SGU and a former Marine, has volunteered with the Medical Reserve Corps to care for homeless people who have contracted COVID-19.

“What we have been finding on the ground is that there are a very high number of homeless people who are positive for the virus. The majority are asymptomatic but are obviously high-risk carriers due to close-quarter contact at most shelters,” said Mr. Berger, who first volunteered with the Corps in New York City and now is working with the organization in New Haven, CT.

For those who are sick, “we have come up with a solution by utilizing a high school gymnasium right near Yale New Haven Hospital. Turning this gym into an isolation unit provides an area that will not get in the way of normal functions of the hospital, but where we can monitor and mitigate any symptoms that could arise. This area also limits the disease spread to the general population,” he said.

Mr. Berger, who aspires to be a neurosurgeon, assists with giving medication, checking patients’ vitals, and helping to make sure patients are comfortable as they recover from the virus. The quarantine area had approximately 25 patients at press time.

Mr. Berger served in the Marine Corps as a machine gunner and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, before heading to undergraduate school at the University of Miami. He said his experience in infantry field medical training while in the Marines and the medical knowledge he has so far gained during his first two years at SGU inspired him during this unprecedented time.

“It is important to me to serve my community and my country during this crisis,” he said.

This week, Mr. Berger started virtual clinical rotations at The Brooklyn Hospital Center. He said he plans to continue to volunteer his time “until there are no patients left.”

RETURNING AS AN ICU NURSE

Arika Boswell (left), MD ’22 (expected)

Arika Boswell (far left), MD ’22 (expected), was an intensive care unit nurse for six years before starting medical school.

Arika Boswell, MD ’22 (expected), was an intensive care unit nurse for six years before starting medical school.

With the urgent need for nurses during the crisis—and following the temporary suspension of clinical rotations in early March through early May—Ms. Boswell (who recently passed her Step 1 exam) said she couldn’t ignore the call for help. She signed a short-term contract with NewYork Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital—one of the many hospitals in the New York City area where much of its patient population is COVID-positive.

“With clinical rotations on hold, I couldn’t find it in myself to not help,” she said. “My family tried to talk me out of it, but they know me. They know I can’t just sit and not answer a call. Especially considering my ICU specialty and experience—it was invaluable. I knew I needed to come and contribute.”

Ms. Boswell said when she arrived at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, she was astonished to see just how many patients were at a critical level. “Typically, the hospital has roughly 30 ICU beds. It converted 150 rooms into ICU,” an impressive undertaking, she said.

“ICU rooms are set up differently than the average hospital room. The whole room is glass so we can see them. Taking 150 rooms and saying these are ICU rooms is much more complicated,” she added. “The other side of that is you need ICU-trained staff. You can’t just take your doctors and nurses and aides and tech and say now you’re ICU.”

“ICU nurses have much more autonomy” than nurses in other departments, Ms. Boswell said. “Patients are presenting with new issues with what seems like every hour. We can’t call the doctor every 20 minutes. The doctors are really good at teaching us because they rely on us to take care of very sick patients when they can’t be there.”

Ms. Boswell wants to become an internal medicine physician. Although her stint at Brooklyn Methodist ended in early May as she prepared for virtual clinical rotations, she hopes to be able to manage her time well enough to continue working as a nurse while the need is still so severe. As of her last shift, Ms. Boswell said every bed was still full at the hospital.

The experience “definitely confirmed that I want to be a doctor,” she said. “I feel like I have been able to receive an invaluable experience at this point because I was able to use my medical knowledge (in a clinical setting). I’m hoping that if this ever happens again, I can be a leader in helping to manage a pandemic in the future.”

ANSWERING THE TECH CALL FOR HELP

Paul Simon, MD '23 (expected)

Paul Simon returned stateside to New York City in mid-March to finish out his second term virtually. He acknowledged the shift to virtual learning was challenging at first, but it inspired him to see if he could help others who are adjusting to that shift as well.

Paul Simon returned stateside to New York City in mid-March to finish out his second term virtually. He acknowledged the shift to virtual learning was challenging at first, but it inspired him to see if he could help others who are adjusting to that shift as well.

“On April 3, New York City sent out an emergency alert seeking licensed healthcare workers. While I am only at the beginning of my medical journey and not yet a licensed physician, I still felt the calling to want to help in some capacity,” Mr. Simon said.

Mr. Simon was introduced to New York Cares, a nonprofit organization that operates a volunteer network throughout the Greater New York City area. New York Cares partnered with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to provide volunteer-coordinated technology support to parents and students living in temporary housing who had received iPads to facilitate remote learning. Mr. Simon joined a group of more than 300 volunteers that call families to provide technical assistance to them, alleviating some of the burden off the DOE.

In addition to just troubleshooting technology problems, the calls have also been an opportunity to provide wellness checks on families that have been hit hardest economically by the effects of the stay-at-home orders. “While the families appreciated the technology help, what really surprised me was how thankful people were just to have someone call and check up on them,” Mr. Simon said.

He recalled one conversation with a parent who was dealing with the stress of losing her job and struggling to teach her son on her iPhone—the only Internet-based device in the home prior to receiving the iPad. The parent stopped him during his conversation with her to explain how appreciative she was of his help.

Mr. Simon eventually wants to become a primary care physician for underserved and immigrant communities. The New York Cares experience was a natural fit for him.

“This volunteer experience is a reminder that patient well-being is more than just alleviating somatic symptoms but also taking the time to listen to the unique struggles that each person faces and recognize their humanity,” he said. “It’s a perspective I hope to bring with me to my future work as a primary care physician.”

For more inspiring stories about SGU students and alumni, check out SGU on Facebook and Instagram.

 

–Laurie Chartorynsky