By night, Dr. Maureen Zakowski ’20 is studying to earn her J.D. in Fordham Law’s evening program. By day, she is a pathologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, where healthcare providers are on the front lines treating Covid-19 patients. We spoke with her about what she’s seeing and how she’s coping as a law student and a physician.
You’re juggling law school while practicing as a physician. What is your specialty?
I’m a pathologist with a specialty in the lung, particularly lung cancer. I run the cytology division at Mount Sinai Hospital. What we do is we basically diagnose people who have different kinds of lung conditions as well as other conditions. We work very closely with chest surgeons, and we work very closely with pulmonologists. So, what my group is doing now is supporting the pulmonologists in obtaining specimens and interpreting specimens from the Covid-19 patients because we have to do this in order to get them the right diagnosis and the right care. But, as you can imagine, if a pulmonologist is putting a tube down somebody’s airway, and we’re there helping, there’s a lot of potential exposure to the Covid-19 virus. So, I’ve been spending a lot of my time trying to keep my people safe, making sure they have the kinds of equipment that they need, going with them when they need help in difficult clinical situations, organizing ways to handle the samples from Covid-19 patients to minimize exposing anyone else.
What are your days like lately?
I’ve already had a number of my people on my team get sick, and a number of their families sick and hospitalized. Some of the things that I’ve been doing are every single day checking on the number of patients and number of procedures and organizing people’s work hours to minimize them having to come in, with most having to use public transportation. I’m trying to distribute masks and protective equipment to people. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of our protective equipment stuff stolen. So we’ve had to try to replace it.
As a pathologist, I examine a lot of patient samples on glass slides under the microscope. In the process of making these pathology slides, the slides are handled by many staff which now presents a risk for spreading Covid-19. So, we brought in all kinds of equipment to clean things. We are also minimizing back and forth trips within the medical center. So, if someone has to go from one building to another, I talk to them first and I say, “Okay, let’s minimize the trips that we make. Let’s do it this way. Let’s do it that way.” Basically, coordinating the effort so that we can get all these diagnoses made as safely and as quickly as possible.
So, after a 12 hour shift, you are finishing up your education as an evening law student at Fordham. What’s that like?
I’m supposed to graduate next month. I’ve been in contact with lots of my classmates, asking them how they are and urging them to wash their hands. That’s the most important thing is to wash your hands right now. And keep out of public or crowded spaces as much as possible. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. I’ve been going into work every day. I’m no hero. I’m just doing my job.
How are you coping?
Well, I’m a little scared. I have a husband and a 24-year old daughter who lives with us. I’m a little worried about them. Honestly, I’m also a little bit distracted. It’s very hard for me to concentrate on my schoolwork. And, I’m very disappointed in what’s happened because in a selfish way, it has kind of ruined my senior experience, if you know what I mean. The reality is I’ll never be back as a student because it’s finished now. I miss my classmates. And I think it’s very difficult to concentrate on the last couple of weeks of law school in the middle of this and now the bar exam has been rescheduled.
You’ve been practicing as a physician for more than two decades. Why law school?
Fordham has this underlying kind of selfless do-good attitude which appeals to me. It’s really truly men and women for others. And, I think if I were younger, and I had more years to practice, I would want to do social justice work.
I wanted to go to law school to better understand the legal side of healthcare so that I could make a difference in health care policy, or provide guidance to hospital administration. As a pathologist, I’m pretty good at what I do, so I wouldn’t want to give that up entirely. I think I envisioned maybe staying in a hospital and having somewhat of a hybrid legal and clinical role, where I could still keep my hand in patient care, but also really educate the hospital and the doctors about what they need to do and how to safely do things.
You recently made a donation to Fordham Law’s Emergency Student Fund, which is providing support for students with unexpected costs due to the coronavirus outbreak. Why did you think it was important to support your fellow students who are experiencing hardships?
As I’ve been working as a physician for a long time, I just felt like there are students out there who are not as financially comfortable as I am at my stage in life I felt I could handle a small contribution and just thought it was the right thing to do. I just feel like I’m lucky. But, that’s not true for everybody and what they might be dealing with right now.
As a physician, do you have any advice for your fellow students?
Stay safe. Don’t go outside if you don’t have to and wear a mask if you go out, even if it’s not a medical-grade mask. Wash your hands continually, and If you go out and touch something, wash your hands and don’t touch your face. If you use good common sense, we’re going to beat it.
Since we spoke to Dr. Zakowski, she recently tested positive for anti-Covid-19 antibodies. She had a brief but intense bout of Covid-19 three weeks prior to her antibody testing. She is now planning to donate plasma to provide anti-Covid-19 antibodies to critically ill patients.