This is part of a series of posts from MIT students and alumni who were involved in the 2012 Student/Alumni Externship Program, which connects current students to alumni in workplaces worldwide during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. Alumni, learn how to get involved.
Guest blogger: Priyanka Saha ’14
Host: Dr. Ofer Jacobowitz ’88
It’s been a month of firsts. First time in New York. First time riding past the concrete giants of Manhattan and seeing the bright lights of Times Square. First time shadowing a doctor in a private practice. First time observing surgical procedures in the OR. As with any firsts, these last few weeks have been an incredible journey of new learning and even some self-discovery.
I spent my externship shadowing Dr. Ofer Jacobowitz at Hudson Valley Ear, Nose, & Throat (HVENT) in Middletown, New York. Dr. Jacobowitz is an otolaryngologist (ENT doctor) and sees patients for health issues ranging anywhere from allergies and sinus trouble to head and neck cancers. One day a week, he performs surgeries in the OR. Dr. J also specializes in sleep medicine, seeing patients for problems such as obstructive sleep apnea, and he is associate director of the sleep center on the office’s ground floor. Not only that, but he also serves as faculty at Mount Sinai, NYU, and Columbia and is a member of several medical associations and boards across the nation. Oh, and did I also mention he is fluent in Hebrew, French, and Spanish and practices martial arts? Yeah, Dr. J is pretty incredible to say the least, and I feel so privileged to have had the chance to get to know him.
From the very first day, I was graciously allowed to hop on board and see patients with the doctor. Over the course of the externship, I sat (and stood) through hours of appointments with patients of all ages (from two to 98), personalities, and symptoms (allergies, earaches, bloody noses, hearing loss, narcolepsy, and severe cancers of the thyroid, throat, and ear). I tried to absorb as much as I could. Dr. Jacobowitz is a fantastic teacher, and I learned more about the ear, nose, and throat and about sleep disorders than I ever expected to during the externship. I was witness to countless examinations with an endoscopic telescope that lets you see deep inside the nose and throat; my favorite was getting to actually see someone’s vocal cords in action under a strobe light as the patient said “eeeeee’’!
On two days of my externship, I followed Dr. Jacobowitz into the operating room to observe surgery. It was truly an unforgettable experience. I got a little too excited during the first surgery I observed and almost fainted! Apparently it’s natural (called the vaso-vagal reflex), especially when observing medical procedures. After a few tasty snacks from the staff lounge, a drink of water, and some ice on my neck, I jumped back in and was fine for the rest of the day. Altogether I saw a tonsillectomy, several septoplasties (nasal surgeries to improve the airway through the nose), a complete thyroidectomy (neck dissection to remove a huge thyroid), and an endoscopic procedure in the throat to improve someone’s ability to swallow. Surgery is definitely nerve-wracking and stressful, both for the surgeon and the patient (and anyone observing, like me!), but it’s also extremely precise and careful, especially in the hands of someone like Dr. Jacobowitz. He calls surgery “controlled trauma.”
Shadowing Dr. Jacobowitz gave me a lot of medical knowledge to absorb, but more important is what I learned from his personality and just being with him. “You’re learning from the best,” his patients told me over and over again. His staff love him too because he is so down to earth and such a terrific teacher. “Dr. J was born to teach,” they say. Whether I was listening to him explain something or just watching him do his job, Dr. Jacobowitz had something to teach me. He showed me what it truly means to be compassionate to others. He demonstrated that a good doctor is the one who listens and spends as much time with a patient as the patient needs even if it means running behind schedule and hoping that the next patient will understand and forgive him for the wait.
“Communication is key to being a doctor, and most diagnoses can be made just by listening carefully to someone,” he told me once. I learned from him what it means to weather the difficulties and remain calm and composed in the midst of stress, fatigue, difficult surgery, or even difficult patients (and we saw a few of those, too). He showed me that being a busy doctor with a thousand important things to do shouldn’t stop you from pausing to answer someone’s question or greet people passing by with a smile and “How are you doing?” I also learned that work is important but so is a balanced life—whether that means spending time with family, practicing martial arts with his son, or listening to his ’80s favorites on the radio.
It’s hard to express and quantify the experience I had shadowing Dr. Jacobowitz at HVENT, and this blog post doesn’t do it justice, but I hope it gives a glimpse. Before signing off, I’d like to sincerely thank the coordinators of the MIT Externship Program, the host family I was staying with in Middletown, all the patients whose hands I shook and who wished me good luck, everyone at HVENT and ORMC, and—last but definitely not least—Dr. Jacobowitz for all the hospitality and care I was shown during a truly eye-opening and unforgettable IAP.
I said goodbye to New York on my way to JFK International Airport, but who knows—maybe someday life will lead me back to Middletown and HVENT?