Finest Doctors 2016: Memorable Moments

We asked 12 doctors to share with readers a memorable day or experience in their medical careers.

Dr. Kenneth J. Koval

Orlando Health Orthopedic Institute

I knew that I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon from an early age. As a child, I would go with my father on patient rounds and became a surgical technician during high school. In medical school, I found great satisfaction from helping individuals who had disability from musculoskeletal disease—whether arthritis, trauma or sports-related. I was at ground zero in New York City during 9/11, available and willing to help all who needed aid. Although there was little to do to help those trapped in the twin towers, I was able to care for many individuals who were in the vicinity and injured during the tragedy. Today I am providing orthopaedic care to the Central Florida community and teaching a new generation of orthopaedic surgeons.

Dr. Sejal Patel

Infertility Specialist, Center for Reproductive Medicine

‚ÄčEvery day with our help, dreams are conceived. Sometimes for many couples, the journey is long; for others, the journey provides hope. One day, a 22-year-old walked into my office, looked at me despairingly and said, “I have aggressive cervical cancer, and I have to have a hysterectomy, but I am so sad that I will never have children.’’ We guided her through all her options, from adoption to a gestational carrier with her frozen eggs. Following the retrieval of 22 eggs, she left with a promise that she would be back. Five years later, as a survivor who beat the odds, she walked into my office and proudly introduced her husband. She was ready to be a mother. We thawed her eggs, created embryos and transferred one into her sister, who had volunteered to be a carrier. Two weeks later, and her sister’s pregnancy test was positive! When we heard the baby’s heartbeat, she looked at me with an incredible sense of life and optimism. This miracle of life is why I love being a part of where dreams are conceived.

Dr. Michael L. Cacciatore

Florida Hospital OB Specialists, Florida Hospital Medical Group

As an OB Hospitalist, my job is about being there when things take unexpected turns in a pregnancy. A few years ago, a woman came into the emergency room with severe abdominal pain. She wasn't a patient of any of the physicians at the hospital and knew no one there. Her pregnancy was 27 weeks along and she was in shock. Seven minutes after she walked through the doors of the ER, we had the baby out via emergency C-section. We discovered that the mother's uterus had completely ruptured—this is an extremely bad situation where women and babies can die. Though the baby was small, he survived and eventually thrived. Lucas is a happy, healthy 3-year-old now, and his mom frequently sends me photos. When I think of him, I am reminded of the Gospel writer Luke, the Physician, who implores us to extend the healing ministry of Christ. This is why I do what I do.

Dr. Judith Simms-Cendan

Adolescent Gynecologist, Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children

One of the most memorable and most difficult moments in my career occurred when I had to tell the parents of a 17-year-old patient that instead of finding a simple cyst and a twisted ovary at the time of her emergency laparoscopy, I found an incredibly rare, aggressive ovarian cancer. I remember particularly her father, a large man with a “biker” look, crying in my arms. Over the next two years I spent considerable time with Shawna and her family, from hope and remissions, to a Skype call from Australia on her Make a Wish trip when she found a recurrence, to hospice and eventually her funeral. While oncologists provided her medical care, I saw her frequently and was inspired by how she held her family together. Although I could not cure her, she affirmed the value of really, truly engaging and caring for patients and their families.

Dr. Richard Finkel

Pediatric Neurologist, Nemours Children’s Hospital

Delivering the news that an infant has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is one of the saddest conversations a pediatric neurologist can have with a family. This is a devastating disease—there has been no treatment for the progressive nerve and muscle disorder, so it typically claims the child’s life by age two. Recently Nemours Children’s Hospital was one of only four sites worldwide to participate in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial of a drug to help these babies. Families moved to Orlando from as far away as Michigan to enroll. You never know if a clinical trial will be a success. In this case, I saw babies who should have succumbed to the disease, who were not only living longer, but hitting milestones like rolling over and sitting up. I’ve long dreamed of a cure for SMA, but seeing these results was still stunning and the highlight of my career.

Dr. Bruce Haughey

Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, Florida ENT Surgical Specialists, Florida Hospital Medical Group

Recently, one of my patients wrote a book about his dramatic experiences traveling around the country to find the best treatment for his tongue cancer. He received many opinions for radical, disfiguring surgery. Still searching, he sought other options. I ultimately removed his tumor with minimally invasive techniques, leaving no deformity. I did not know the patient was a published author, but in the book he characterized and in some cases, caricatured his providers, looking for humor in each phase of his care. When I read his account, it gave me a sharpened understanding of the patient mindset; relentlessly seeking to find hope through levity during one of life’s most difficult challenges. I continue to be inspired by the courage of patients who maintain his positive, holistic outlook, and, as a believer, have also often been moved by the powerful role prayer can play in recovery.

Dr. Akinyemi Ajayi

Pediatric Pulmonary and Pediatric Sleep Medicine Specialist; The Children’s Lung, Asthma and Sleep Specialists

A few weeks ago, I was standing by the front desk at my office when a tall young man came asking to see if his prescriptions were ready, as he was preparing to go away to college. I glanced over and smiled because I remembered his first office visits with his father as an 8-year-old. He had already been held back a school grade and was considered a failure. Following an evaluation, I diagnosed him with narcolepsy and I remember his father asking, “Do you mean I have punished him all this time for being lazy when he was actually sick?” I could see the pain etched in his face and the regret he felt. I told him that I would treat his son, and that he wasn’t stupid, just sleepy. Fast forward 10 years later, and he is off to college. What could be better?

Dr. Maryam Kashi

Central Florida Hepatology & Gastroenterology, Florida Hospital Medical Group

When I first became a gastroenterologist, I had a patient come in who had not been able to eat anything but broth for weeks and weeks. Treatment for head and neck cancer had caused an extreme narrowing of his esophagus to the point where he couldn't eat anything more than that. He had dropped 30 pounds very quickly and was miserable. Early in the morning, I performed an endoscopy, where we dilated his esophagus, and sent him to recovery. At lunch a few hours later, I walked in the cafeteria, and there was my patient, eating mashed potatoes! He was thrilled, and so was I. It really confirmed that gastroenterology was the perfect field for me. I love being able to provide the solution that will instantly improve a patient's quality of life.

Dr. Bryan Reuss

Orlando Orthopaedic Center Sports Medicine

As a sports doctor, I get to treat athletes of all levels, often saving a professional athlete’s career, but not saving lives like my amazing colleagues do. So imagine my surprise to learn from a patient that I “saved her life.” She reminded me that when I saw her for her knee the year before, I told her she needed to lose weight. She said I was very direct, yet constructive (I have never been one to sugar-coat things), and apparently motivated her in ways that no one had been able to do before. After losing 80 pounds, she located a breast mass during a routine self-exam. After successful treatment, she is now cancer-free. She stated, “I never would’ve felt it had I not lost the weight, and I owe that all to you. You saved my life!” No matter how uncomfortable the topic is, our advice can have a tremendous impact on our patients' lives.

Dr. Timothy Bullard

Emergency Medicine Physician, Orlando Regional Medical Center

Sometimes unhappy endings impact you the most, and the smallest act of compassion helps others the most. While treating a 2-year-old, we discovered a malignant tumor. It was one of the few times I didn’t know how to break the news. I wasn’t sure how to deliver such difficult news to a mother. I only knew to hug her as I shared the diagnosis and let her know we would be with her throughout the next steps. I learned our patient died months later. One day the mother came to the Emergency Department and hugged me. She shared how much it meant the day I hugged her as she learned about her child’s condition. Emergency medicine is usually filled with short encounters due to chance circumstances. I didn’t realize such a short moment could have a strong impact for a family member and me.

Dr. Michael V. Jablonski

President, Jewett Orthopaedic Clinic

As an orthopaedic surgeon, I have the unique privilege of helping athletes and patients get back to the life they love and resume normal daily activities without pain. It is something I truly cherish. However, the most memorable moment in my medical career occurred as a chief resident. At age 30, I was diagnosed with cutaneous lymphoma. While my family and I processed such life-changing news, I truly did not realize that I would learn one of the most important lessons that helped shape me into the doctor I am today. Traveling to different cancer centers across the country and undergoing countless radiation treatments allowed me to meet and share my experiences with other patients going through the same thing. I remember the feeling of fear and being vulnerable, and this truly helps me relate to the feelings of each and every one of my patients. Those difficult moments and that chapter of my life molded me into a better doctor and, more importantly, a better person. 

Dr. Catherine Wang

Florida Eye Clinic

My role as an ophthalmologist has been primarily aimed at preserving sight. However, I recall a patient whose presentation suggested more than a vision problem. Her chief complaint was sudden, intermittent vision loss, specifically with a curtain coming down into her field of vision. This symptom, in conjunction with her other risk factors, caused me to be concerned about the possibility of a mini stroke. After speaking to her internist, the patient was seen immediately, referred to a vascular surgeon, and underwent an emergency procedure due to severe blockage of her carotid artery. The patient and her husband were grateful that an impending stroke was avoided. I have had the pleasure of remaining in contact with them and will always remember the role that an ophthalmologist can play in preserving more than just sight.

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