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Fresh out of med school, grads move to the pandemic front lines

Newsday reporter Catherine Carrera, spoke to two recent

Newsday reporter Catherine Carrera, spoke to two recent medical school graduates on Thursday, who were called to fight on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.  Credit: Newsday / Catherine Carrera

Two new Long Island doctors thought they would be taking time off and traveling after graduating from medical school this spring.

Alison Laxer, 27, and Alexander Smith, 25, instead put on their scrubs and white coats to join the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unlike anything they would have imagined, the couple said.

In their first two weeks on the job at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Laxer and Smith witnessed scenes far different from what they had grown accustomed to during rotations.

Some patients were too sick to consent to clinical trials. Glass walls protected workers from patients, and entire units were transformed to house the intubated. There was also the task of putting on various pieces of personal protective equipment.

“It’s very surreal, introducing yourself as 'doctor' for the first time in this environment,” said Laxer, who lives with her boyfriend Smith in Great Neck.

They officially became doctors on April 10, a month earlier than their scheduled graduation date from the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave the directive earlier this month to speed up the graduation of fourth-year med school students so that they can join the workforce. The Class of 2020 at the school of medicine at Hofstra will still have a virtual graduation ceremony on May 11.

Laxer and Smith are two of more than 40 graduates who joined the Graduate Coronavirus Task Force deployed throughout Northwell Health hospitals to combat the pandemic.

As the daughter of two doctors — an internist and endocrinologist who met as residents in the hospital she works at now — Laxer had been excitedly waiting for her graduation day. She envisioned walking across the stage and her parents waiting on the other end to hood her.

"That’s the moment you become a doctor,” she said. “But I felt like we never had a 'moment.' ”

Unceremoniously, three days after becoming doctors and getting trained via Zoom chats, they entered the hospital with their new assignments.

Laxer, who plans to do her residency in pediatrics, was assigned to work as a consenting physician, informing patients or their families of recommended clinical treatments. She has mixed feelings about treating patients in serious condition just days out of med school.

“I would want the most experienced person, so sometimes I feel bad," Laxer said. "But then I remember putting on the news and itching to do something to help.”

Meanwhile, Smith has been working in the intensive care unit with patients who need breathing tubes. He intends to do his residency in internal medicine. He said navigating the uncertainty with coronavirus treatment has been unlike anything he's trained for.

"If I had a patient with a heart attack, it’s unlikely to change between now and a month from now how we as a team would treat that patient," Smith said.

But with COVID-19 patients, it's crucial to communicate the uncertainties with the families of patients.

It's "different than anything I would’ve expected in my first experience out of having graduated from medical school," he said.

Still, Smith and Laxer said they can't imagine sitting back during this crisis.

"I feel like this is like the first time that we’re going through something as a country and I can actually help," Laxer said. "It’s very empowering to feel like you actually can lend a hand and do something."

Smith said there was no question that he would answer the call to join the ranks of physicians on the front line of the pandemic.

"I think that regardless of how we had envisioned our fourth year, it was just a no-brainer," Smith said. "The answer was yes."