It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt. In some cases, the opposite is true. Olga Hilas '02P, '03Pharm.D., Associate Professor Industry Professional, Clinical Health Professions, and Danielle Ezzo '02P, '03Pharm.D., Associate Clinical Professor, Clinical Health Professions, have never left each other’s side. First as students and now as faculty members, they have been devoted friends for over 20 years.
They began their journey of friendship as third-year Pharmacy students at St. John’s—a journey that has intertwined in wonderful and improbable ways, and one that continues to this day as faculty members in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
Dr. Hilas and Dr. Ezzo knew each other since starting St. John’s, but it wasn’t until they both took a particularly challenging class that their unshakable bond developed. “There was a group of us who hung out in the cafeteria in St. Albert Hall,” Dr. Hilas recalled. “I had seen Danielle there, and I knew her as this nice, sweet girl.”
She added, “I will never forget the look on her face when we got the second exam back, because I had the same look. We were like, ‘What are we going to do about this class?’ I think we bonded over our facial expressions and concern,” she laughed.
The pair were part of the last class in the University’s five-year (now six-year) Pharmacy program, and, upon graduation, they were faced with the decision to continue on to a sixth year that was being offered to a limited number of students. “We had a lot of sit downs to discuss the pluses and minuses,” Dr. Ezzo stressed, noting that many of their classmates opted to forego the chance and begin their careers immediately. She and Dr. Hilas opted for the sixth year.
“The funny thing was most of the people in our distinct friend groups were not doing it,” Dr. Hilas noted. “We were always friends, but this brought us closer together. That was a defining moment.” Dr. Ezzo added, “We were together all the time. We would stay late and find places to study together.” For that year, they were in every class together.
A year later, they were faced with another opportunity and another conundrum as they were offered the chance to do a pharmacy residency program, an optional post-doctoral year that gave them more experience but delayed their entrance into the profession yet again. “Both of us were of the same mindset: if we were ever going to do it, then now’s the time.”
Dr. Hilas and Dr. Ezzo applied to several residency locations, not intending to end up in the same place, but somehow, they did. “Our future interests in terms of pharmacy practice were different,” Dr. Ezzo stressed. She was focused on ambulatory care, while Dr. Hilas was focused more on hospital care. “Danielle was applying more to out-of-state locations, and I was staying more local,” said Dr. Hilas. When “Match Day” arrived, the friends were both selected to the one institution to which they both applied—the US Department of Veterans Affairs/New York Harbor Healthcare System--and would spend a seventh year together.
“We were over the moon,” Dr. Ezzo said, adding that the hospital gave both the opportunities they needed. The two rented an apartment together near the hospital for that year. “We knew we were going to have a tough year and were great support for each other.”
Dr. Ezzo noted that, while they were together constantly, their clinical tracks were vastly different, and she believes that provided a great balance. They also did service together at the hospital, running clinics for local residents. “We balanced each other so well. Clinically, we’d talk about things, but we were also comfortable just studying together in silence. We went through so much together in that year.”
Dr. Hilas joked that her father never wanted her to move, but when he heard she would be living with Dr. Ezzo, he relented. “He knew we had common goals and common values. We meshed from the minute we had that first discussion. If there is any doubt or encouragement that I need, or someone to set me straight, she’s my go-to.”
Her voice cracking with emotion, Dr. Ezzo said, “I wouldn’t be who I am today without Olga.”
While higher education was always one of Dr. Hilas’s career goals, Dr. Ezzo was not so sure. However, at the end of their residencies, they both applied for faculty positions at St. John’s. “Just like with our residency programs, our interests were divergent, so we were not applying for the same position at St. John’s,” Dr. Hilas noted. During the same week, they both received offers to teach at their alma mater.
As their careers evolved, they grew both together and separately. Today, they sit on a number of the same committees. The pair also have a standing weekly coffee date where they discuss work and family life. They often bring their laptops and work together in silence on separate projects. “I won’t do that with anyone else,” Dr. Hilas stressed. Dr. Ezzo added, “It takes a certain comfort level to be in a room with someone and not talk.”
Both are married now with children. Dr. Ezzo was with Dr. Hilas the night she met the man who would become her husband; while Dr. Hilas was one of the first people to whom Dr. Ezzo introduced her future spouse. They also live one mile from each other, which they assure was not planned. In good times and in bad, they always are the first person the other calls for celebration or support.
“I never, ever said to myself, ‘Oh you again,’” Dr. Hilas stressed. “If I had to sum up what I love most about Danielle, it’s how genuine she is. I can tell her things and know she’s not going to judge me. I can be real, and I can trust her.”
Dr. Ezzo added, “Olga represents the strength I don’t have. The working together is a bonus. We’d still be friends no matter what. There’s a clear reason God put us together, and St. John’s brought us together.”