They had training, experience, and the right gear. Lauren Zeitels and Victor Fedorov, a pair of medical residents from Boston, had trekked on snowshoes for about 20 minutes in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, earlier this month, evidently seeing a beautiful frozen waterfall, Zeitels’s family said.
They had ventured just 30 yards outside of tree cover when the avalanche hit.
“It was just the wrong place at the wrong time,” Zeitels’s mother, Susan, said in a phone interview Monday. “It was just as simple as that.”
Zeitels and Fedorov, both 32, died in the avalanche, believed to have occurred on March 12. Their bodies were recovered several days later, but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police declined to identify them publicly, citing privacy laws.
Officials at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Zeitels and Fedorov were in the second year of the internal medicine residency program, confirmed their identities in an internal memo Monday, saying that the hospital had lost two “young rising stars.”
“We mourn these dedicated and promising physicians who were full of life and embodied the kind of devotion, compassion, and brilliance that represent the best of medicine and humanity,” wrote Katrina Armstrong, physician-in-chief, and Jatin Vyas, residency program director.
Vyas, in an interview, said he believed Zeitels and Fedorov “were poised to make major contributions to medicine,” both through research and treating patients. “They saw themselves as physician/scientists.”
Zeitels grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in biochemistry, according to Massachusetts General Hospital. She received a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and completed her medical and doctoral degrees at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She had intended to study rheumatology.
Zeitels loved the outdoors and often hiked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
“When you’re on rotation for 24 hours, you have to get away,” her mother said. “Enjoying nature allowed her to see patterns, and seeing patterns in science is how you can then make new diagnoses and new treatments. Nature is filled with patterns. She would get wonderful ideas when she was out hiking.”
Fedorov, also an outdoor enthusiast, was born in Moscow and grew up in Richmond, according to Massachusetts General Hospital. He earned his medical and doctoral degrees at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, and did his doctoral research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He had planned to specialize in hematology and oncology to explore new and novel cancer treatments, Vyas said.
Fedorov’s family could not be reached Monday.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, Fedorov and Zeitels sought to diagnose the toughest cases and find research-based approaches to complex problems, said Robert Goldstein, the hospital’s chief resident for internal medicine.
Together, they founded the “pathways program,” which sought to connect medical research to the most complicated cases in the hospital, bringing new ideas to unsolved problems, Goldstein said.
“They were sort of this incredible pair that really built off each other,” he said. “They were able to make each other better by the work they did.”
Zeitels’s father, Jerrold, said he hopes the pathways program continues.
“It would bring even more meaning to her life,” he said. “In 32 years she did more than most people do in a lifetime. I want to see her legacy move forward with that pathways program.”
Goldstein said the two researchers were close friends, but very different in their approaches. Zeitels was driven and intense. Fedorov was inquisitive and pensive.
But each brought similar passion as they worked together to understand the biology behind human diseases. Goldstein noticed their exuberance when he met Fedorov and Zeitels during their first year of residency.
“He [Fedorov] constantly would burst into my office with the next great idea,” Goldstein said. “Victor would be the person who would come to the doorway and say, ‘I think I figured it out.’ ”
They were both seen as leaders in the residency program, constantly learning from their patients and turning around to teach new skills to other residents.
Zeitels, in particular, had a love and gift for teaching, Goldstein said.
“They both taught our residents to sort of push to the next level, to work hard to achieve their goals,” he said.
News of the accident has been difficult for the members of a close-knit residency program, who are mourning their friends while continuing to care for patients, Vyas said.
“It has been traumatic for them,” Vyas said.
Zeitels and Fedorov were both carrying transceivers, a piece of safety equipment used to locate avalanche victims. Zeitels’s parents said their daughter had taken avalanche safety training.
“She didn’t suffer,” her mother said. “There was nothing anyone could do to save her.”