From “The Hot Zone” to ER doctor

Debbie and her sister, Christine, with their Madison Square Boys and Girls Club mentees in 2002, in New York City.
Debbie and her sister, Christine, with their Madison Square Boys and Girls Club mentees in 2002, in New York City.
My sister, Christine and I with our Madison Square Boys and Girls Club mentees in 2002.

It was 2002 and I was working as an economic development consultant in New York City. It was a year after 9/11, and the city, specifically Lower Manhattan, was still in shambles. I had the opportunity to consult on projects for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (the organization overseeing the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, i.e. the Financial District after September 11th). Working in consulting was a change of pace from investment banking, which I had been doing. All of a sudden, I had my nights free to actually have dinner with my friends instead of spending nights at my desk in front of a spreadsheet on my computer.

It was during autumn of 2002 that I found the book, “The Hot Zone” in a giveaway pile at my sister, Christine’s friend’s house and asked if I could borrow it. The book is based on the true story of an Ebola outbreak in a research facility near Washington, D.C. For anyone who has read the book, it’s the definition of a page-turner and yes, I finished the book in a night or two. After reading Richard Preston’s book, I became fascinated with ebolavirus which turned into a fascination with infectious diseases, most notably HIV.

With my newly-free evenings in consulting, I had time on my hands. My sister and I became involved in the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club and found ourselves in the Brooklyn Navy Yard playing basketball on the weekend with our new, younger friends.

During a walk home from work in the winter of 2002, in which I typically traveled around the World Trade Center site, rather than adjacent to it (a year after 9/11 was still early for me to face the reality of what the footprint of the building represented), I was detoured due to construction and forced to travel along the west side of the site. It was my first time walking along that route and what I found was the Borough of Manhattan Community College, which I later learned was nicknamed BMCC.

I walked into BMCC and realized there was a full-fledged college mere blocks from my office and at the entrance of the building, students were enrolling for spring semester classes. I picked up a class bulletin to see if there were night classes and to my surprise, there were many. Sitting in my 5th floor, tenement-style, walk-up apartment on Spring Street (situated in a neighborhood since-coined Nolita), I found THE class: Microbiology 101 (the study of microscopic organisms including viruses)! I didn’t have the pre-requisite classes, but I handed in my application and check on the last day of class enrollment and prayed no one would notice. It worked.

Starting in January of 2003, I left work at 6pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays to walk to BMCC. Tuesdays were lecture-style classes and Thursdays were labs where we learned behind a microscope. I was fascinated – it was the perfect juxtaposition for my day job. My friends couldn’t believe that was how I was spending my nights. My family wasn’t all too surprised as I had always been interested in science and medicine (and because I am a self-proclaimed secret nerd).

In March of 2003, my sister suffered a serious accident and spending each day with her in the Trauma ICU and then the Trauma Stepdown Unit and then in her hospital room and then at rehabilitation made me realize, first hand, the incredible work that doctors, nurses, and physical therapists, among the many other hospital staff, do. Her accident, although terribly traumatic, was the culmination of multiple building blocks in my life that pointed to an ultimate goal: I had to become a doctor.

In September of 2003, I enrolled at Bryn Mawr College in the Premedical Post-baccalaureate Premedical Program– a one-year, intensive program in which you take all the premedical requirements with a group of other, liberal arts majors, of all ages. I guess my family wasn’t all too surprised by my transition – how many 20-something-year-olds take a Microbiology class for fun?

In June of 2013, my husband and I graduated from the Emergency Medicine residency program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. I guess it only made sense to go into Emergency Medicine: the front line of the hospital. It took 11 years after fortuitously finding “The Hot Zone” in a giveaway pile of books that I finally became an attending emergency room physician. And as I like to say, in becoming a doctor: the days go by so slowly, but the years go by so fast.

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