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Different Journeys in Lives Dedicated to Medicine

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Different Journeys in Lives Dedicated to Medicine

Physicians from three different eras in three different settings trace their roots back to Penn State.

23 April 2018

However, when we talk with alumni physicians, they inevitably talk about the “soft skills” that they learned at Penn State, and they often rank their participation in laboratory research as their greatest learning experience. Not only do they get first-hand experience with hypothesis formation, experimental design, and lab-bench techniques, but they also learn to work in an often highly diverse team of undergrads, grads, and postdocs; to orally present their findings at weekly lab meetings; to analyze data, to participate in manuscript preparation; and to critically evaluate the primary literature. The three physicians highlighted in the next story are, on the surface, very different from one another. They span three generations of students and practice medicine in very different settings, but they all speak highly of the scientific foundation they received in the Eberly College of Science, and they all attribute a portion of their success in the medical profession to the other skills that they learned here. —Andy Stephenson

Across the nation and around the world, thousands of medical professionals with degrees from the Penn State Eberly College of Science contribute to society in impactful and life-changing ways. Three notable physicians from different eras stand out as examples of academic and medical excellence. All got their start at Penn State, but each embarked on his or her own diverse journey: one became a pediatric ophthalmologist; another, an internationally prominent breast cancer surgeon; and the third, an emergency room physician in one of the most dangerous metropolitan regions in the country. All three make Penn State and the Eberly College of Science enormously proud.

A life well lived

Louise Sabol
Louise Sabol
“Never, never, never give up!” a phrase borrowed from Winston Churchill, was Louise Sabol’s life motto. On March 12, 2017, Louise passed away at the age of 83. She had practiced Churchill’s maxim every day of her life and taught her children and grandchildren to do the same.

Louise Sabol grew up in the small central Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Mount Carmel as the daughter of the town doctor. She spent her childhood watching her father practice family medicine in an office adjacent to their home. He was one of those old-fashioned family practitioners, making house calls day and night with his “little black bag” in hand. Louise frequently went with her dad to see patients, and from an early age she aspired to be a doctor herself.

“She often told the story of the time she vaccinated all the neighborhood children with a safety pin for practice,” said her daughter Jennifer Sabol. “This, of course, necessitated additional vaccinations for tetanus from her father as well as apologies to each child and their parents. Thankfully, her judgment improved over time!”

For Louise, the road to a medical degree was not an easy one.

“When she was in high school, she had no idea why she was sent to the home economics classroom to make a skirt while the boys went to the auditorium to take the college entrance exams,” Jennifer said. “Only later, when she realized that she was missing the SAT scores necessary for her applications, did she turn to her principal and ask for help. His response? ‘My dear, you were on the homecoming court and were Miss Mount Carmel, as well as runner-up for the Pennsylvania Laurel Festival queen. You don’t need to go to college to catch a good husband.”

Louise persevered, and she matriculated at Penn State in 1951. She joined only 1,000 women out of 13,000 students on campus, and she was one of only two women in the Premedicine program. She had no female peers or mentors to guide her.

“Mom was a strong, determined young woman with tremendous grit and tenacity,” Jennifer said. “She jumped right in, studying until midnight and repeating chemistry experiments three or four times on the weekends ‘just to be sure they were correct.” After graduating in 1955 she went on to complete her medical training at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and then did her residency in ophthalmology at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania. During that time, she met and married John Sabol, an orthopedic surgeon, and gave birth to two girls, Jennifer and Carolyn, barely a year apart. But within five years, her husband died of cancer at the age of 39, leaving her to raise her young children alone.

Louise returned to work as a widowed mother and become the first female surgeon on the staff of the Geisinger Medical Center. Over the years, she helped develop Geisinger’s program in pediatric ophthalmology. In her honor, the department created the Louise Justin Sabol Teaching Award to recognize faculty who share her dedication to teaching resident physicians. After 32 years in practice, Louise chose to retire. In gratitude, after her retirement, she was presented with her portrait, which hangs today in the Janet Weiss Children’s Hospital Hall of Fame at Geisinger.

Just before Louise died, her family decided to honor their mother by creating the Dr. Louise Justin Sabol Undergraduate Scholarship in Premedicine. The scholarship provides financial support to Penn State students who have a passion for the acquisition of knowledge and are experiencing obstacles to education, as did Louise. The family hopes that this scholarship will help its recipients to successfully complete their studies in premedicine and continue to become outstanding physicians and role models.

“The students at Penn State will never know her like we do, but we hope they can be aided in achieving the same goals that she held firm,” Jennifer said.

The idea to set up a fund in Louise’s honor began when Carolyn Sabol began the college search with her son John and visited Penn State in spring 2016. “While we were talking back at home, my mother started to reminisce about ‘the good old days’ during her time at Penn State,” Carolyn said. “As the many great stories were told, the realization hit us that this place was the starting point for our mother’s career that lead her into a lifelong dedication to medicine, to excellence in teaching, and to becoming a leader in her field. It is with gratitude to Penn State that we decided to set up this fund to honor her and to give back to the place that ended up shaping all of our lives. We want other young students to experience that same transforming power of the excellent education here.”

Dedicated to women’s health

Monica Morrow
Monica Morrow
Like Louise Sabol, Monica Morrow was also transformed by the education she received at Penn State. She was part of the Penn State–Jefferson Premedical/Medical program, an accelerated five-year program with one year (plus four summers) of undergraduate study at Penn State and four years of study at Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This program has produced some of Penn State’s most distinguished alumni. Morrow is among the elite individuals who embraced the rigor of the program, and she now has an incredible record of distinguished contributions to the profession and to the many lives of those she has saved.

Morrow said she still remembers what it felt like to come to campus for the first time, fresh out of high school.

“Other than the minor detail of going to class,” she joked, “arriving at Penn State in the summer was like arriving at a wonderful, giant summer camp with the tennis courts and swimming pool. It was exciting to be with all these younger people and this huge, wonderful library. It was just a great experience.”

After graduating from the premed/med program in 1971, Morrow did her general surgery residency at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont, followed by a surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center. Today, she is the chief of the Breast Surgery Service at Sloan-Kettering, where she advises and treats primarily breast cancer patients and oversees 13 full-time breast surgeons and five clinical breast fellows.

“I get a great deal of career satisfaction out of developing the careers of my junior faculty and fellows,” Morrow said. “It keeps you on your toes and challenges you to stay on top of new ideas so you don’t ossify in your thinking.”

Morrow decided to focus on breast cancer surgery for a variety of reasons, but especially because she knew that by doing so she could help a large number of people.

“It’s the most common cancer in American women,” she said. “It’s also biologically a really interesting disease because it affects an enormous spectrum of women, ranging from very young women to women in their nineties.”

In addition, Morrow added, breast cancer was the first surgical cancer to be the subject of prospective randomized trials—now considered to be the gold standard for developing high-quality evidence regarding treatment.

“You can never get bored, because there’s always some new information that comes along that changes your assumptions about the biology of how the cancer acts and what the best way is to treat it,” she said.

In addition to practicing medicine, Morrow participates in research. Specifically, she and her colleagues are investigating ways to decrease the burden of treatment for women while still maintaining excellent outcomes. To do so, the team examines decision-making among patients and surgeons with regard to treatment.

She explained that women with early-stage breast cancer have a choice of having their breast removed—what is known as a mastectomy— or having breast-conserving surgery, called a lumpectomy, which consists of taking out the cancer along with a margin of normal tissue around it and radiating the breast.

“For many years it was thought that relatively high mastectomy rates in the United States were a function of surgeons pushing women to have bigger surgeries, but we found that if the surgeon was the primary decision-maker, the mastectomy rate was only 5 percent; if it was a shared decision between patient and surgeon, it went up to about 16 percent; and if the patient felt that she made the decision herself, the mastectomy rate went up to about 26 percent,” Morrow said. “In other words, patients are a driver of mastectomies, not surgeons. Even though survival is the same between the two operations, there is this belief that it is somehow safer to have a bigger surgery. But even if your breast isn’t there, cancer can come back in the scar tissue, so it’s not safer to have it removed.” The team’s next step is to develop an educational approach that will help patients make informed decisions and help physicians better interact with their patients.

“The time of a cancer diagnosis is a highly stressful time,” Morrow said. “It’s important for physicians to be sensitive to patients’ feelings of urgency, while still clearly explaining to them their treatment options and the likely outcomes of those treatments.”

The challenge of emergency medicine

Sina Memari
Sina Memari
Unlike Monica Morrow—who usually has the luxury of time to discuss treatment options with her patients—Sina Memari, a physician in the emergency department at the John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County, often does not. Located near some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, the hospital treats an average of 45 to 50 trauma patients per day, many of whom are gunshot victims. The staff members at the hospital’s trauma unit are so good at their jobs that the hospital was one of only two in the country to be selected by the U.S. Department of Defense to train medical personnel for war.

“The emergency department is a fast-paced, high-intensity unit that requires your full mental and physical dedication to treat patients,” said Memari, who at age 27 and fresh out of medical school began working as a physician resident in the hospital’s emergency department in 2016. It was his first paid job as a physician.

Besides helping victims of violence, Memari said, a typical day includes the simultaneous treatment of multiple patients with more common afflictions.

“In Room 2 might be a young girl with a headache,” he said. “Is it a simple migraine? Is it meningitis? Or is it a stroke or a brain tumor? In the next room over, a gentleman may suffer from chest pain. Is it just acid reflux? Is it a problem with his lungs? Or is it a heart attack? Down the hall, a boy could have a dislocated shoulder that needs to be reduced and placed in a sling. On top of that, suddenly a pregnant patient might arrive with no time to take her to labor and delivery.”

Despite the stress, Memari—who graduated from Penn State in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in film—enjoys the challenge of the emergency room setting.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s exciting,” he said.

Memari’s interest in medicine was already developing by the time he enrolled at Penn State in 2008. During his first year, he joined the pre-health honor society—Alpha Epsilon Delta—through which he participated in workshops, engaged with guest speakers about their careers, and attended social events and outings. By the time he was a senior, Memari was president of the society.

Memari also participated in research during his time at Penn State. Under the direction of Sagarika Kanjilal—then an associate professor of veterinary science— he used a variety of techniques to investigate the ways in which various proteins affect how organisms function.

“We would be in class, reading about these techniques, and since I had performed them myself, they were much more familiar to me,” he said.

While at Penn State, Memari was also devoted to the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON).

“I enjoyed being very involved,” he said about THON. “My friends called me a ‘yes-man’ because every time there was an opportunity, I was up for it. I think it made a difference when I was applying for medical school. Being well-rounded stands out to admissions committees.”

But it wasn’t just his extracurricular activities that made a difference. Memari said the courses, especially the electives, that he took prepared him well for medical school.

“By the time I got into med school, I had already been exposed to so much. I was more prepared than some of my classmates who had gone to smaller colleges,” he said.

Memari graduated from the Drexel University College of Medicine in spring 2016. From there, he went directly to the John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County.

“Since it’s a public hospital, it will treat anyone, even without insurance, so a lot of the patients we see are from the underserved community and don’t have great access to primary care,” he said. “When they come to us, a lot of times their diseases are more advanced. In a way, we serve as a safety net: When patients have fallen through the cracks, we provide them with the basic care that they need. The holes in our health-care system have become very apparent to me.”

The work is tough but Memari feels its worth it.

“I feel strongly about helping those in need who would be turned away elsewhere,” he said. “In addition, Cook County—with its immense volume and acuteness of patients—has an incredible history of training some of the best ER physicians in the country, and learning from leaders in my field on a daily basis is a great privilege. They often say when you apply to medical school, ‘If you can picture yourself doing anything else, do that,’ because medicine is a long and taxing journey, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.”

Memari knew as an undergraduate that medicine was the path he would take, and he is thankful for the education he received at Penn State giving him his start.

“I would not trade my time at Penn State for anything,” he said.

A common thread

Indeed, Memari is adamant that his time at Penn State was essential to his current success. That sentiment is echoed by Monica Morrow. And Louise Sabol, during her life, also made clear her positive feelings for the University.

Although they charted different courses through life, each of these doctors had a similar start in the Eberly College of Science, where they acquired a foundation in the sciences, developed strong oral and written communication skills, and learned to appreciate the importance of behaving ethically. And just like their fellow alumni in medical professions, each has applied these skills toward making a difference in the lives of many.

—Sara LaJeunesse

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