Throughout her career, Dr. Carlisdania Mendoza has strived to work with and help those on the margins.
“Being an immigrant myself—first-generation college student, first person in my family to go into medicine—my reasons for going into medicine were always to serve the underserved and people who are marginalized and sometimes don’t have access to care,” said Mendoza, a 2012 graduate of Fordham College at Lincoln Center. “And those are particularly the communities that have been struggling a lot during the pandemic.”
In her role as a psychiatrist at Maimonedes Medical Center in Brooklyn, Mendoza has seen how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected immigrant communities. But she’s also seen glimmers of hope, such as more people coming in to treat their mental health needs than before. And she’s drawn on her Fordham education to help serve them.
“I feel like so much of the Jesuit tradition in education is about asking questions rather than having answers, and this has been a time where there are so many more questions than answers,” she said. “So it helps to be more comfortable with the unknown as we kind of navigate through this time.”
Mendoza and four other Fordham alumni who work in health care shared their experiences at “Caring for Others in a Pandemic,” an April 19 online panel discussion hosted by the Office of Alumni Relations in partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Admission. The discussion drew a broad Fordham audience, including newly admitted undergraduate students and their families. The panelists shared five takeaways for how their Fordham education in both the liberal arts and sciences has allowed them to succeed in their fields.
Caring for the Whole Person
Dr. Hussein Safa, FCRH ’12, an attending physician in the immunodeficiency clinic at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, said that one of the Jesuit principles he learned at Fordham, cura personalis, or care of the whole person, is something he practices when working with patients.
“I’m not just thinking about, ‘Here’s your HIV medicine,’ but it’s like, ‘OK, here’s your HIV medicine, but also you’re struggling with food and you have trouble with housing,’” he said, adding that people often need support in dealing with issues beyond their physical ailments. “‘How can we make sure that we take care of this whole person, this holistic approach?’”
Safa, who previously did his residency at Montefiore in the Bronx before working in Philly, said that he has tried to employ cura personalis even in trying times, such as dealing with a crush of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic from March to June 2020.
“And I think that’s part of where the Fordham mantra comes in—you see somebody and you know you have the ability to help and to be in solidarity and to provide whatever services that you can,” he said. “I think a lot of that came from Fordham, trying to be like, ‘How can I be of service?’’’
Safa said that while at Fordham he volunteered with the Center for Community Engaged Learning (formerly the Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice), which helped him gain an understanding of the range of needs people have and barriers they face.
“Everything that I’ve done at this point for my career has been based off of what I had learned in my experiences with the Dorothy Day Center and focusing on asking these questions about privilege and access—what does it mean to be underserved or uninsured, and why are people underserved?” he said.
Working with Empathy, in Solidarity with Others
Mendoza, who earned an M.D. from Duke University, conducted research in the Dominican Republic as a graduate student, working with people living in poverty, with limited access to health care. She said she drew upon skills she learned as an undergraduate, both in the classroom and through a Fordham Global Outreach project in Nicaragua.
“It was so much more than a service trip, because there’s a very robust training before you even travel anywhere,” she said of the Fordham program. “It was really helpful to have that background to help me prepare. What does it look like to go somewhere where people are really struggling, and how do you ask these scientific questions in a very empathetic and sensitive way and try to make the work really relevant and really help them?
“It really helped me to think about it in a very well-rounded way, and then … interact with people in a kind, service-oriented way.”
Using Problem-Solving Skills to Handle Difficult Situations
When Dr. Daniel Barone, FCRH ’01, was completing his residency at Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center, he said one of the attending physicians he worked with “didn’t give a compliment to anybody about anything. But he did say this one thing: ‘Anybody who I know who came through here who went to Fordham, they always know how to think.’”
Barone, the associate medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine and an attending neurologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said that line has stuck with him throughout his career, particularly during the pandemic.
“I thought that was a beautiful testament to the University,” he said. “So I think in these situations, these unprecedented times, being able to think outside the box or think a little bit differently than the standard is really important.”
Using Liberal Arts Courses to Improve Scientific Skills
Dr. Ronald A. DePinho, a distinguished university professor and immediate past president of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, moderated the panel discussion. He said there were two essential courses he took at Fordham, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 1977.
“For me as a scientist, the most important courses that I took at Fordham were my communications course and English,” he said. “The ability to write and communicate effectively is fundamental to being a good doctor and being a good scientist.”
Christine Schwall-Pecci, a 2009 graduate of Fordham College at Rose Hill, agreed. She said that when she was an undergraduate, she would talk with her science major friends from other colleges, and she realized that her courses at Fordham put more emphasis on developing strong written and verbal communication skills. Those skills have provided the foundation for her career, said Schwall-Pecci, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is now the senior medical director for medical strategy and scientific affairs at BGB Group, a health care communications group.
“I think I had a leg up going into grad school and a Ph.D. program with a bunch of scientists who, some of them hadn’t written a lot of papers before and all of a sudden were forced to think about how to communicate what we’re learning,” she said.
“Now in my job, [taking]complicated scientific concepts and bringing them into a language that’s more accessible to different patient groups—it’s really been invaluable to have that kind of skill set in my back pocket,” she said.
She said other courses she took as a part of Fordham’s core curriculum exposed her to perspectives and ways of thinking that have proven useful.
“In taking my core classes, I was opened up to sociology, which is to me kind of the foil of biology, chemistry, the hard sciences—it’s another way of looking at the world around you,” she said. “And I take a lot of those learnings through to what I’m doing now, particularly because I am more involved in thinking about a more public health landscape and what this means across the board for patients and for physicians versus just very specific outcomes for a specific study.”
Developing a Broader Perspective
Mendoza said that one of the biggest benefits of attending Fordham was the fact that she was able to learn more and do more outside of just the sciences.
“[The core] really pays off because you’re thinking about history and how it affects the way people live,” she said. You’re thinking about philosophy and different ways of thinking. Even the courses on religion—there’s so many diverse courses you can take to learn about different religions and to learn about Christianity—and so all of that together I think really inspired me to be very curious about how people live and how people develop.”
For Schwall-Pecci, another benefit of her Fordham education was being encouraged to volunteer and join extracurricular activities that she said might not have been offered at a more technical school.
“Fordham provided that opportunity to become more of a well-rounded person, with more opportunities outside of just focusing on what I primarily wanted to study,” she said. “And that, to me, was a game changer, because while I was interested in science, I didn’t want to close the door on learning other things or having the opportunity to give back or do other extracurricular activities.
“Caring for Others in a Pandemic” was one of three events in a series titled From Fordham to Your Field. Read about the two other events in this series, “Forge Your Own Path: Creative Career Journeys” and “Community Building in the Time of Binge-Watching.”