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This month, we continue our new approach to YO Spotlights, periodic profiles of you and your colleagues. Each featured YO is asked the same 10 questions, picking seven of them to answer. For our second profile, we talked to Shahar Frenkel, MD, PhD, a member of the Academy’s Leadership Development Program XII, class of 2010.
Dr. Frenkel is in his first year of practice at the Hebrew University Medical Center in Hadassah, where he works at the Israeli Specialized Ocular Oncology Service. He attended medical school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as part of Israel’s Academic Reserves, completing a PhD in molecular biology, along with his MD. Upon completion of an internship, he was stationed as a battalion physician and later a navy physician. After his army duties, he completed an ophthalmology residency at Hadassah and a fellowship in ophthalmic pathology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Why did you become an ophthalmologist? The simplified surgical approach to medicine appealed to me as a medical student, in terms of an immediate surgical solution to a medical problem. When I graduated, I already knew that life is not as simple as this. However, I still preferred a surgical field that adds a sense of problem-solving for many of the patients. For me, ophthalmology combines an interesting clinic, sophisticated surgeries and a vast field for research.
What does a typical day look like for you? On a typical clinic day, we’ll see about 30–35 patients, most with uveal melanoma, of which there is usually at least one new patient that has to be told he has a form of cancer in his eye, and that his life may still go on despite that. Talking with parents of newly diagnosed babies with retinoblastoma always requires more delicacy. Every now and then, a clinic day may also include chemotherapy injections to vitreo-retinal lymphoma patients.
On a typical surgical day, we’ll be in the OR for the entire morning inserting radioactive (Ru-106) plaques, removing plaques and removing conjunctival and corneal lesions. My week also includes research and administrative days for organizing the residents’ program, along with reviewing specimens that come to the ophthalmic pathology laboratory.
What do you like most about the organization/health system/region where you practice? I like the fact that the Israeli health system provides health services to all the citizens, no matter what their financial status is. In addition, as a physician, I am proud that we accept and treat patients from our neighboring Palestinian Authority, even during times of conflict with their political leaders. When we see a patient before us, we treat them as humans, no matter where they came from, and hope that it will one day help bring peace to our region.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do? It is always difficult to give patients bad news, be it a newly diagnosed patient, parents of newly diagnosed babies with retinoblastoma or patients with newly diagnosed metastases. I deal with these issues every week and it is always as difficult as the first time, having lost two loved ones to cancer myself. What makes it easier is knowing that I can promise a good prognosis to most of my patients and I am doing research to try and find a cure for the remaining ones.
If you could be mentored by one physician, living or dead, who would it be and why? This is a tough question to answer, being fortunate, as I was, to be mentored by two wonderful physicians who always remember to be human before they are physicians, and combine state-of-the-art medicine with a constant drive for research. Both my mentors share a great passion for what they do and are enthusiastic, yet patient, teachers. I hope to be able to compare with them and, one day, to be able to pass these traits to my future students. I would like to take this opportunity and thank both Professor Pe’er and Professor Folberg for all their teachings.
What advice would you give a resident or someone considering ophthalmology as a specialty? To the medical student who is thinking about ophthalmology, I would say that, in developing countries, you can restore independence to someone who was blind by a simple cataract procedure. In more privileged parts of the world, ophthalmology still gives you a chance to affect people’s lives in a field that, aside from life-and-death issues, worries them the most — vision (or you can choose to become an ocular oncologist to deal with both top fears).
Ophthalmology is a field of medicine where you can actually see what is bothering the patient and treat it with high-tech surgeries. You can also provide comprehensive management to a variety of systemic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension. Moreover, ophthalmology provides top-notch research opportunities. To sum it up, this is a wonderful profession that gives plenty of satisfaction to those who practice it.
What do you find fulfilling about your career in ophthalmology? In our service, we not only diagnose and treat patients with ocular tumors, but we also serve as their oncologists and follow them for life. This lifelong relationship forms bonds of trust and friendship with our patients. It is always fulfilling to share patients’ treatment success, long-term, disease-free follow-up, and joyous occasions over the years. However, having their trust at their moments of despair, being the one they turn to at those times, is no less rewarding.