By Lisa Shrewsberry
“I feel for every malignancy,” says Dr. Zarina Rasheed, a pathologist for Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital for the past 39 years. Her seldom seen but critically important contributions to health care have affected literally thousands of lives, with body fluids carefully examined against her store of knowledge and tissue biopsies scrutinized to rule threats out or in, all executed inside her tightly run lab and much of it behind her microscope. For those patients whose slides or samples generated bad news, Rasheed never took her responsibility in diagnosing or in delivering the diagnosis lightly.
“I knew what they were going to go through … the chemo, the radiation. All of that because we made a diagnosis. But if they were fighters, then we saved lives.”
The importance of early detection is essential to treatment for many conditions. Women diagnosed with breast cancer confined to its primary site, for instance, have a five-year relative survival rate of 98.4 percent. Survival drops to 23.8 percent at the five-year mark if the cancer has had time to metastasize. Pathologists play a pivotal role in early and accurate diagnosis, which can lead to more successful outcomes.
As Rasheed describes it, she and others like her arm practitioners with the medical confirmation they need to effectively treat patients. “The lab is a very important part of health care,” states Rasheed. Within a profession known for its somewhat warranted life-saving egos, Rasheed’s specialty kept her as behind the scenes as any doctor could get. Still, she is satisfied with her life’s work. “I think it’s the people you work with and their ability to make you feel like you are really contributing. Also, it is your own ability to see what you have done for patients.”
She, for one, is a physician unoffended when patients seek second opinions regarding serious matters such as a cancer diagnosis. “I would want one, too,” she remarks.
Rasheed remembers a long-ago colleague whose physician told him he had cancer, a malignancy she had detected in the tissue sample. “I signed his slides out for him to confirm with another pathologist. I said, ‘If I have to be wrong, I hope this is the one time I am wrong.’” She wasn’t wrong and she grieved for the patient and colleague.
Joanne Kish, now retired, was the chemistry supervisor for BARH when Rasheed first arrived as a resident pathologist. “She started out as a student and became our teacher, mentor, leader and friend,” explains Kish.
Kish refers to Rasheed as “one of the unseen and unsung heroes of medicine,” an accolade she has earned one tough accreditation and one accurate diagnosis at a time. Moreover, the scientist and physician took the inherently cold environment and turned it into a place emphasizing the humanity in human resources. For nearly 30 employees at any given time, she found regular cause for celebration and recognition — birthday luncheons, employee appreciations. “She has always given us holiday parties, being respectful of our beliefs even though her beliefs are different,” recalls Kish, regarding Rasheed’s Muslim faith.
“It takes a lot of education and innate ability to be able to perform the duties of a pathologist, not only adequately, but with excellence,” Kish says.
Labs may play a quiet role in health care, but they are meticulously monitored. Rasheed, explains Kish, worked diligently to see that the lab at BARH had all appropriate accreditations and where protocols were needed, she’d establish them. Her influence within her discipline also commanded the attention of BARH CEO Rocco Massey.
“If anyone thinks as an administrator you can operate a hospital in a vacuum, they are definitely wrong. It takes teamwork and relationship-building. When things get tough, you have to have people you can go to, individuals you seek out for advice and guidance. For me, Dr. Rasheed has been one of those people,” states Massey.
While at BARH, Rasheed helped build her own version of Fort Knox in terms of security and safeguards. Her protocols for blood delivery and patient receipt of blood products were stringent enough to avoid critical mistakes. “She has been a key leader in regard to blood bank operations,” Massey continues. “The control of blood and blood products is, from a clinical quality standpoint, paramount. There is the potential for disaster if someone makes a mistake. The chain of custody established by Dr. Rasheed has been instrumental in putting us at the top levels of quality in regard to blood utilization.”
Playing an important supporting role within her successes is husband and longtime Beckley physician Dr. Syed Rasheed.
Married 45 years (a Bengals fan, she keeps track by the number of Super Bowls, which began the year of their marriage), he has always had her back, Rasheed says. He has given her the security and flexibility she needed to do and say what she felt most strongly about within her profession. It hasn’t always been easy. In moments when she had to respectfully disagree with past administrations on the way her lab should be run, putting her job on the line, it was her husband’s sage counsel that encouraged her.
“My husband is the wisest person in the whole wide world for me. Whenever I have been in trouble, if I followed his advice, I came out smelling like a rose,” she admits.
“I have done things here that people didn’t like and they’ve done things I didn’t like. But my husband’s support gave me the strength to be able to fight for the things I believed in.”
Testimony to the trust and reliance both have upon each other is in a routine the lab workers take note of with admiration. With any of a number of qualified medical professionals at his disposal, husband Rasheed still arrives at the lab like clockwork for his wife to check his blood pressure.
Rasheed transitions Sept. 28 from her station as chief pathologist into being chief grandmother when she officially retires. Her plans are to focus on getting her house in order for selling, then to ultimately move closer to her children and two grandchildren, granddaughter Aasiya, 8, and grandson Asif, 4.
One of her daughter Saba’s childhood drawings, created while on a visit to her mom’s lab over three decades ago, still hangs laminated in her office. She captioned it “Cup full of love” and drew a mug with gradations of color, filled to overflowing with tiny hearts. Saba didn’t become a pathologist despite the lab’s early influence in her life. She is now a Ph.D. psychologist with the University of Iowa and plans to return to the D.C. area, closer to the area where her mother and father will move within the next two years. The Rasheeds also have a son, Hassan, an assistant prosecuting attorney in Charles Town.
On the eve of her exit, Massey pays Rasheed one of the highest compliments — saying she’s leaving her post better than when she found it, improved even over the short term, when anyone else would’ve said, “My work is done.” He sees her commitment down to the wire as the hallmark of a true leader. “We are really going to miss her here,” he states.
To Rasheed, reluctant to take credit, it has always been a team effort, whether the team was her family or her faithful lab counterparts.
“I was 30 years old when I came here as a second-year pathology resident. All of these people taught me; they made me what I am today.”