The daughter of a New York City firefighter and a public high school math teacher, Long Island native Diane Reidy-Lagunes, MD, knew from a young age that serving the community was important. She and her sister Maureen also knew the value of many cultures. They grew up in a multinational household with an Italian-Jewish mother and an Irish-Catholic father. “We celebrated everything,” she says with a laugh.
Education was also important, but private college seemed financially out of reach. Dr. Reidy-Lagunes worked hard to fund her tuition at the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo before transferring to Cornell University’s School of Human Ecology. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she developed an interest in math that led her down the pre-med path. She also ran track and rowed crew.
Setbacks Become Opportunities
Dr. Reidy-Lagunes was waitlisted the first time she applied to medical school. She switched gears and moved to Boston, where she worked as an au pair for a young girl and her family while also working in a Tufts laboratory in downtown Chinatown.
In Boston, Dr. Reidy-Lagunes applied to more medical schools and was again waitlisted. She was down, but not out. When she spotted an opportunity to teach biology and chemistry for one year in Spain, she went for it. “It was such a fortuitous opportunity,” she recalls.
She became fluent in Spanish, taught her young students, and made friends that to this day she calls “the dearest people.” When her year in Madrid was over, she came back to the US to find that she had been accepted to every medical school she had applied to.
Shortly after that, she met her husband, Sergio. Her dreams were falling into place.
‘Where I Belonged’
Dr. Reidy-Lagunes enrolled in SUNY Downstate Medical College and rotated at Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital. At Kings County, she worked in the cancer wards — and her vocation became clear.
“Kings County defined me as the doctor I am today,” she says. “Working with the patients there was incredibly rewarding. I learned by doing. The practice of clinical oncology medicine demands a marriage between science and compassion. I knew that’s where I belonged.”
Dr. Reidy-Lagunes completed her residency in internal medicine at Mount Sinai, where she was chief resident. She then did a fellowship and chief fellowship in medical oncology at MSK. She has been a medical oncologist at MSK ever since, caring for people with gastrointestinal tumors. She says her mentor and fellow MSK gastrointestinal oncologist Len Saltz, MD, inspired her to think big.
“He really taught me to challenge dogma,” she says. “To this day, when someone calls me outspoken, I consider it a compliment.”
She knew the hard work that went into success and paid it forward, becoming the co-director of MSK’s Fellowship Training Program alongside fellow medical oncologist Dean Bajorin, MD.
“Working with Dean was an absolute gift,” she says. “That solidified the importance of mentorship to me — of ensuring that our future generations and leaders are cared for.”
Outside of the office, life was also picking up speed. As a fellow, she and Sergio welcomed son Alec, now 14, and daughter Keira, now 11, both of whom are bilingual.
There was a specific moment Dr. Reidy-Lagunes knew that COVID-19 was going to be a big deal. “I was at Alec’s science Olympiad competition the first Saturday in March and got a call to come in for an emergency meeting,” she remembers. “Later, I was watching TV and saw how Elmhurst Hospital was getting overrun. It was that week that we started going into crisis mode.”
As president of MSK’s medical staff, Dr. Reidy-Lagunes was a crucial member of the institution’s HICS (Hospital Incident Command System) team, which was activated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chief Medical Epidemiologist, Mini Kamboj, MD, led the infection control effort as part of that team.
“Under Mini’s clinical leadership, it was an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Dr. Reidy-Lagunes says. “We were desperately trying to get everything done while keeping employees and patients safe during a time of so much uncertainty. You’d blink and have 40 new emails. We just kept going.”
Dr. Reidy-Lagunes saw how the virus was making patients fearful about coming to MSK. She helped establish a remote monitoring system so that patients could report any COVID-19 symptoms to MSK clinicians who were caring for them via telemedicine. She also worked with the team to define how in-person care needed to change: What personal protective equipment should staffers wear? Should there be temperature checks at the door? The team looked to the data for answers, even as it changed day-to-day.
She also had a hand in little touches to provide comfort. She shares that patients were discharged with pulse oximeters and that MSK had an ambulance waiting to pick up anyone with COVID-19 across the five boroughs. “It’s a testimony to the culture at MSK — everyone was just trying to do the right thing.”
As the physician ambassador to MSK’s Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality (PFACQ), she helped get the word out that MSK was a safe place and that patients shouldn’t put off their cancer care.
Educating and Informing
In between caring for patients and overseeing daily logistics, Dr. Reidy-Lagunes used her voice to educate and inform the MSK population — and beyond. She started hosting a podcast available on Spotify and other platforms, called Cancer Straight Talk from MSK, with one episode exclusively dedicated to COVID-19 and cancer. She also answered questions about COVID-19 on MSK’s website and hosted multiple patient information Q&A sessions in English and Spanish.
“Being honest and transparent is so important,” she says. “I wanted to make sure the message was clear: Cancer doesn’t wait and neither do we.”
Dr. Reidy-Lagunes says her patients and colleagues motivate her at the toughest moments. “The mission keeps us going,” she says. “We in the MSK family have always understood the fragility of life. These unprecedented times have clarified, even more, how precious life is.”
She relieves her stress by spending time with her family and running in Central Park.
“This is the greatest city in the world,” she says. “It’s changed a lot, but I’d never bet against New York City — I am certain it’s going to come back bigger, better, and stronger.”
A Trailblazing Icon
Dr. Reidy-Lagunes says Michelle Obama inspires her to be her best in all areas of life.
“She is not only a class act, but she also embraces all sides of herself — a leader, mentor, wife, mother, daughter, and friend — and that is something I admire,” she says.
As a leader both inside and outside MSK, Dr. Reidy-Lagunes is proof that we’re all multidimensional and that we all need to celebrate the many facets that define each of us.