From a young age, New Paltz High School graduates Giovanna Varuzza and Erva Khan had always aspired to become doctors. As fate would have it, these two recently anointed physicians were accepted to the same medical school, placed in the same dorm room and are now preparing to scrub up and enter into their respective medical fields – not only in the midst of a pandemic, but in its current epicenter, New York City.
“We weren’t really friends in high school – more acquaintances,” said Varuzza, 26, who was part of the NPHS class of 2012. “Erva [26, Class of 2011] was a year ahead of me, and we had one class together, Anatomy, which was an elective taught by Mr. Tracy.” Varuzza remembers studying for the class next to Khan in the NPHS library during lunch.
Khan went to Georgetown for her undergraduate work and Varuzza to SUNY Binghamton. While the two were “friends” on social media, they hadn’t spoken in years. Then Khan saw a post on Facebook that Varuzza had been accepted to New York Medical College, “where I had been accepted to!”
The former schoolmates met up in New Paltz for coffee to catch up and share their excitement about entering the same medical school. What they didn’t realize until move-in day was that they were going to be roommates. “There are approximately 200 students in our class, and they ask you to fill out a survey which asks about your hobbies and habits, likes and dislikes,” said Khan. “It had nothing to do with where you were from. And then I end up sharing a room with Giovanna!”
They had two other roommates as well. Throughout their grueling and exhilarating four years of study, the two became great friends and study partners, sharing milestones like Khan’s wedding day and their surprise early graduation from NYMC, located in Valhalla, in Westchester County.
It was February when the virus really hit, Their medical school made the decision to release the graduating students a few weeks earlier so that we “could get a job if we were needed, or start our residencies earlier or put our skills to work volunteering,” said Varuzza, who had been accepted for a three-year pediatric residency at New York University, which begins this June. Khan landed a residency in medical psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.
Both women have been anxious to do whatever they can to roll up their sleeves and get to work until they begin their residencies. “I don’t know what that is going to look like,” admitted Varuzza. “I’m in the pediatric field, but I will go wherever they might need me. If I need to work with and treat adults to be of service, of course I will.”
In the meantime, Varuzza, who is “sheltering in place” with her fiancé and their new puppy in a small Manhattan apartment, said that she’s doing whatever volunteer work she can. “Through NYMC, we have a PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] supply drive that I volunteer for, which we work remotely to ask businesses and the community for PPE donations to be distributed at local hospitals who need them.”
Although she only recently graduated medical school and will soon be immersed in a three-year residency program, Varuzza cannot stop studying and working to grow her medical knowledge. “I have been reading research articles about Covid 19 and trying to learn practical skills such as how to manage a ventilator. I want to be as prepared as possible once I enter the hospital,” she said.
Like her friend and fellow Paltzonian, Khan is not sitting idle. “Medicine is a service-based profession. I chose to go into this field because I wanted to help others,” she said. “I wanted to become a doctor because it was the most direct way I could imagine to help people and to connect with people. And right now, there are so many people who are in need of help: hundreds of thousands across the country that are sick from Covid 19, and so many lives disrupted. I am so grateful to have finished my medical education and am focused on ways to be helpful during this crisis.”
To that end, Khan is serving as oversight coordinator for non-clinical volunteer projects, including the PPE supply drive. She’s also working on remote documentation and family communication programs whereby student volunteers assist physicians at Westchester Medical Center by writing patient progress notes remotely, as well as by providing daily update calls to families on how their loved ones (only those in stable conditions) are doing. Their help eases the burden on physicians who have to give their time to the most critical of cases.
Varuzza said that one of her nightly rituals living in New York City includes participation in the daily 7 p.m. claps for essential workers. “I have made a point to open my windows and clap every night,” she said. “It’s a small thing, but it feels special and meaningful.”
Khan lives in Brooklyn.
The women feel a strong connection to each other, to their NYMC classmates, their NPHS teachers and formative education. They are in a profession that, while always in great demand, is right now being stretched beyond the pale.
They hope their story might inspire more local students to purse the field of medicine. “Becoming a doctor has been my lifelong dream, and I am very much looking forward to making a difference and helping as many people as possible,” said Varuzza.
She remembered riding the yellow New Paltz school bus with Khan in elementary school. “I forgot all about that until we met up again in New Paltz to have coffee and talk about our upcoming entrance to the same medical school,” she said. “Going through this journey with Erva by my side was wonderful. It was very comforting to share the experience with someone who completely understood where I came from.”