Dr. Mary Fowkes was instrumental in the fight against COVID-19. Her work gave us more information about how this deadly virus affects the human body, particularly the brain. She was focused on learning more about the long-term effects of the disease and COVID “long-haulers,” or those who continue to test positive and show symptoms long after other individuals recover.
The entire medical community was saddened to hear that Dr. Fowkes recently passed away after suffering a heart attack, just weeks after giving an interview on CBS about her work.
From PA to Neuroscientist
Someone like Dr. Mary Fowkes doesn’t come around very often. After graduating from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse in 1977, she became a physician’s assistant. To improve her chance of getting into medical school, she took a job at a cell and developmental biology laboratory before eventually enrolling in the doctorate program of anatomy and cell biology at SUNY Upstate Medical University.
After graduating from a combined Ph.D.-M.D. program, she completed her residency in pathology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston in 2003. She was soon taking fellowships in neuropathology at New York University Medical Center and in forensic pathology at the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner.
That’s where she met Dr. Barbara Sampson, now the city’s chief medical examiner. Dr. Fowkes showed an uncanny interest in autopsies and how they could be a gateway to untapped knowledge of the human body, including infectious disease.
As Dr. Sampson remembers, “What she really learned from us is what can be learned in an autopsy, the importance of giving families closure and the importance of an autopsy to public health and understanding disease.”
Dr. Fowkes went on to join the Icahn School as an assistant professor of pathology. She was also named Mount Sinai’s director of neuropathology in 2012, only to become its director of autopsy service two years later. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, much of her work focused on meningiomas, which are slow-growing benign tumors that grow around the brain and spinal cord.
Unearthing the Truth About COVID-19
As a respected neuropathologist, Dr. Fowkes shifted her work to study the effects of the coronavirus when the cases started to appear in New York back in the spring. At that time, little was known about the virus. The medical community believed it mostly affected the lungs.
But Dr. Fowkes wanted to learn more. She knew performing autopsies on patients would unlock clues about the mysterious disease that could help save lives. Instead of focusing on the lungs, she wanted to see the brain.
She volunteered to perform the autopsies, despite being an older individual with a greater risk of severe illness. According to Mount Sinai Hospital, she used an oscillating bone saw to break open the skulls of deceased coronavirus patients. Doctors believe she may have been exposed to aerosolized bits of bone and blood containing the virus, despite wearing layers of PPE.
During an interview with the BBC back in June, Dr. Fowkes said:
“There were only four pathologists who were willing to potentially risk their lives to start doing autopsies on these cases. I considered it critically important to end up doing this work so we could get some answers to know how to treat the patients correctly. So, we did use all the protective equipment, but we were still very scared, to be perfectly honest.”
But the work proved useful, nonetheless.
Dr. Fowkes and her team discovered new information about the virus, challenging preconceived notions that it was just a disease of the lungs.
Speaking with CBS, she said, “We saw very small and very microscopic blood clots in the lungs, the heart, the liver — and significant blood clots in the brain.”
During the interview, she held out a piece of the human brain with a brown spot to show viewers the lasting effects of the disease. Pointing at the spot, she said, “That’s a stroke.”
This showed that coronavirus patients were at risk of having a stroke in addition to respiratory failure. After sharing her discovery, doctors started using more blood thinners to treat those suffering from the disease, resulting in improved health for some patients.
Dr. Fowkes wrote a paper on her work before she died, but it has yet to be peer-reviewed.
It’s not clear whether she contracted the virus or if it contributed to her death, but her colleagues remember her having to wear the same N95 masks for a week at a time when PPE was in short supply.
She passed away at the age of 66 at her home in Katonah, New York. We are eternally grateful for everything she contributed to the fight against COVID-19.