Dr. Zoe Stewart Lewis
By Peter Jovanovich
Last October, the world learned of an extraordinary advance in the field of transplantation medicine. A team of physicians successfully attached a kidney grown in a genetically modified pig to a human patient and found that the kidney worked normally.
The procedure, which involved a brain-dead patient, has the potential of saving the lives of thousands of people with kidney disease. As many as 15% of all patients with kidney disease in need of a transplant die because there are not enough human donors. As a professor of transplant research at Johns Hopkins remarked, “This is a huge breakthrough. It’s a big, big deal.”
If you Google a picture of the operation, you see the hands of surgeons at work. One pair are the hands of Zoe Stewart Lewis, M.D., Ph.D., a Rye resident.
The paper this week had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Stewart Lewis, or Zoe, as she insists on being called. “How did you make the front page of The New York Times in a story about pig kidneys?” we asked.
“It’s a long story,” she began. “I grew up in a rural community, Kaukauna, Wisconsin. I was interested in becoming a doctor, attended University of Tulsa for Pre-Med, and then Vanderbilt University for medical school.” But during that journey, as Zoe recalls, it was her mother’s getting breast cancer that changed her life’s career.
At first, she focused on cancer research. While in medical school, she volunteered in a children’s hospital treating pediatric oncology patients. “I realized that the emotional toll in this field was quite hard for me.” She is very admiring of doctors who can and may have certain knowledge such as health disparities.
During the surgical rotation, Zoe discovered how much she enjoyed, both literally and figuratively, “hands-on” medicine. And, while at Vanderbilt, she had the opportunity to be in an OR to see a liver transplant operation. “To see a patient, near death, whose life is saved, is mind-boggling.”
This led to a residency for three years at John Hopkins in general surgery and then two years as Fellow, Abdominal Transplant Surgery. Along the way, Zoe won a string of awards and prizes for outstanding achievement in the sciences and surgery.
Whoosh! “How did you find time for anything else?” we asked. “Oh, I’m an avid biker. I compete in 60- to 100-mile races,” she said casually. In fact, this summer, she’ll be in the Whiteface Uphill Mountain Bike Race, which is so challenging that its nickname is the “Beast from the East”.
And it was through racing that she met her future husband, Jason. After Johns Hopkins, she took the position of Surgical Director of Kidney, Pancreas and Living Donor Transplantation at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City. She joined a biking club, went on a few “bike dates”, but found she left many in the dust. “On our first bike ride together, Jason stayed with me for 60 miles or so, and I thought – there may be something here.”
When it became apparent that the method of allocating organs for transplant was going to shift from a regional to a national system with more of the transplants occurring at major metropolitan hospitals, Dr. Lewis knew the family would be relocating at some point soon. In 2018, one of her mentors at Johns Hopkins invited her to join the team at the Transplant Institute at NYU Langone Hospital, and they moved to Rye. Zoe and Jason are parents of a son and daughter both of whom attend Midland School.
Why Rye? “We looked at a lot of places, in Westchester and Long Island, but we kept relooking at Rye. The sense of a real community, the great schools, the feel of a real downtown, were all compelling reasons to move here. And, we were helped by an outstanding realtor, Nancy Lawton at Houlihan Lawrence.”
Just two years after settling into a new community, Covid-19 struck. Dr. Stewart Lewis recalls that Langone suspended all but urgent surgeries for a period and she volunteered to attend in an ICU devoted to Covid patients.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Families were unable to be at the bedside of their loved ones, who became critically ill so quickly.” She explained that many families found it devastating that seemingly nothing could be done after intubation.
Being a parent during the pandemic has had its challenges for everyone, but particularly for Zoe and Jason, since one of their children is hearing-impaired. “Zoom classes just didn’t work,” she explained. Further, for the hearing-impaired, who rely on reading lips, a masked world is very challenging. Fortunately, their child recently received cochlear implants, which have made a world of difference.
In interviewing Dr. Stewart Lewis about the groundbreaking research she is conducting in transplantation disease, one is struck by her infectious enthusiasm for her calling, her care for her patients, and her excitement about saving lives through methods no one could have conceived of ten years ago – let alone transplanting a genetically-modified pig’s kidney into a human patient.
“Every day I go to work is exciting,” she said joyously. “I love what I do.”