From Russia With Luck — and Determination

From The New York Daily News



Her autobiography is titled “From Russia With Luck,” but it was more than luck that landed Dr. Zoya Schmuter her job as a forensic pathologist for the New York City medical examiner’s office.

Schmuter, who at 71 still has sparkling eyes, is recently retired after working 22 years for the city performing autopsies, analyzing human remains and testifying in trials – some of a forensic pathologist’s main responsibilities.

On a recent blustery morning in late fall, she sat in her cozy upper East Side apartment, surrounded by pictures of family, and flanked by Sam Schmuter, her husband of 50 years.

“I will never forget Sept. 11,” she says when asked about her most memorable experiences in forensics.

“When the firefighters brought [their fellow firefighters’] body parts, they were all standing in a line, with such respect,” she says. “There were not many bodies, just bones.”

As part of her job as senior medical examiner for the Bronx, she joined other city pathologists in performing autopsies and describing remains before sending them to a serology lab for DNA identification.

Schmuter began her medical career as a pediatrician in the cities of Gorky and Moscow in the former Soviet Union. She then worked as an anatomical pathologist, or a pathologist who diagnoses organs and tissues following medical testing or surgery, in Yerevan, Armenia – then in the southern part of the Soviet Union.

In 1973, she and Sam decided to submit an application to leave the former Soviet Union with their two sons.

As she tells it in her book, “I think I was a product of Soviet society, sufficiently brainwashed” but determined to escape the “hard life, shortages, [and] primitive living conditions” behind the Iron Curtain. She also wanted to leave for “adventure, challenge and change.”

But from 1973 to 1975, the Soviet government would not let the family leave. Even appealing for permission was risky – some of the Jews, or “refuseniks,” who did so, like the famous dissident and eventual Israeli Knesset member Natan Sharansky, were jailed. Fortunately, the Schmuters, a Jewish family, were not.

They left in 1975 for Israel, when they were both 37 and their sons were 16 and 9. Schmuter found work as a pathologist, while Sam, an engineer, opened a consulting business with partners. Their sons, Leonid and Gene, attended school.

To practice pathology in Israel, Schmuter needed to learn Hebrew, which she did, in three months, at an intensive language school for doctors.

“In Israel at that time, they needed doctors,” she says. “When you have to survive you learn very fast.”

Because autopsies are forbidden in Orthodox Judaism, she performed few in Israel, instead mostly doing medical biopsies.

After 3½ years in Israel, Sam was offered a job at the Ford Motor Co. in Detroit. Although the Schmuters’ older son, Leonid, was serving in the Israeli Army, the family decided to move to the U.S.

Leonid eventually joined them after he had completed his service.

Just as Schmuter learned Hebrew in order to practice in Israel, she learned English to practice medicine in the U.S.

She received tapes in a course to prepare doctors for American medical exams, but the speech was too fast for her to follow, so she read books on “internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology and surgery” for months to improve her knowledge of terminology and English. In the evenings, she took English classes.

Eventually, she passed the exams.

“I always wondered why other people seemed worried and even frustrated during or after our many exams,” she writes in her book. “Failures and successes were just a part of these activities. I was a foreigner in this country, and many things had to be learned.”

Then, at age 44, she embarked on a new medical residency in anatomical pathology.

“I was going back to ‘boot camp’ even though I was over 40,” she writes.

After completing her residency and a fellowship in forensics, she had difficulty finding work, possibly because of her accent.

But she cast a wide net and found a job working for the office of the chief medical examiner of New York City.

Her husband quit his job with Ford and they moved to New York.

Her determination is legendary among her colleagues in the medical examiner’s office.

“She calls her book ‘From Russia With Luck,’ but it was a lot more than luck that got her where she is,” says Dr. James Gill, deputy medical examiner for the Bronx, who reported to Schmuter when she was stationed there.

“[Hers] is a story of unbelievable intelligence, courage and determination.”

Since retiring in April, Schmuter has written another book, “Tales of Forensic Pathology,” a compilation of stories about her experiences as a forensic pathologist.

She has been working to get it published but has met with some frustration and says she may self-publish. She has also been spending time with her grandchildren and taking short story writing at Marymount Manhattan College.

“I am not working; this is why I retired,” she says. “I am 71 years old and I think I deserve a break.”

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