In these pages, we profile a gifted group who are making a difference. Whether they're mending tiny hearts, aiding recovering addicts on the road to recovery or dreaming up new ways to keep kids with allergies safe, their passion for helping others inspires appreciation and admiration.
Founder and CEO, AllerMates
"I'm an allergy mom," Iris Shamus says, voicing a phrase that resonates deeply with fellow parents whose children are allergic to nuts, dairy, wheat, shellfish and other common foods. A self-described "mompreneur," Shamus is the founder and CEO of AllerMates, a Bergen-based company that manufactures kid-friendly products and learning tools for children with allergies, asthma and other health concerns. First and foremost, though, she's a mom who shares common ground with a growing number of parents of children who suffer from food allergies.
Eight years ago, Shamus recalls, her then 1-year-old son reached for a cashew – and they were thrust into "a new reality." Because her daughter didn't have allergies, she asked herself at that moment, "What are the chances he'll have a nut allergy?" But almost immediately, his face turned purple, he broke out into hives and began crying. Fortunately, her brother-in-law gave him Benadryl as they headed to the ER.
"From that moment on, things have never been the same," Shamus says.
By the time her son entered preschool, the situation was well under control, but Shamus, like other parents with food-allergic children, was concerned about what would happen when she couldn't monitor every morsel going into his mouth. Instead of worrying, though, Shamus took action – dreaming up a line of colorful, cartoon-inspired wristbands, dog tags and charms that would quickly indentify her child and others like him who suffer from food allergies.
"It had to be something fun that would appeal to kids," she says. "It began as a creative project but it quickly took on a life of its own."
Today, the AllerMates line of kid-approved products is sold at CVS, Kmart and Babies "R" Us stores nationwide, and Walgreens will roll them out this spring. Locally, they can also be found at Whole Foods, A&P, Pathmark and Stop & Shop.
AllerMates has met with such success that Shamus recently introduced MediMates to address numerous other health concerns, including asthma, diabetes, autism and food intolerances.
"The goal is to protect children," she says, "so we are expanding and evolving to offer support to kids with a range of health issues."
In addition to wristbands, dog tags and charms, the companion lines now include lunch and snack bags, medical cases for toting EpiPens and asthma inhalers, and use-anywhere stickers illustrated by colorful allergy and health alerts.
Because Shamus is passionate about education, she's packed the company's website with helpful resources for parents, teachers and schools. There, they can find downloadable action plans, restaurant cards and school signs, join a community of like-minded parents and even find allergists by geographic area. She's also teaming up with a pharmaceutical company to help spread awareness.
"Every character has a poem, helpful tips and key facts," she says. "Our goal is to create a whole health brand anchored in education about allergies, asthma and other health concerns of children."
Although the company has expanded beyond the boundaries of her Upper Saddle River basement, Shamus is still taking things "one day at a time."
"I didn't go into this thinking it would be what it has become," she says.
Dr. Howard Jones
Gynecological Surgeon, The Valley Hospital
A- fourth-generation OB/GYN and specialist in minimally invasive gynecological surgery, Howard "Hal" Jones, M.D., follows in the familial footsteps of a long line of pioneers in his field.
"My grandparents were co-founders of the Howard and Georgeanna Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School," he says. "They established the nation's first IVF clinic and continued to push the frontiers in assisted reproductive medicine for many years."
At the behest of friend and colleague, Dr. William Burke, director of gynecological oncology at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, Jones joined the hospital's surgical staff a year ago, following his completion of a prestigious Fellowship in Minimally Invasive Gynecological Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
A big part of Jones' work is treating pelvic pain, a condition he feels is under-recognized and undertreated.
"One in seven women suffer from some type of pelvic pain and, in many cases, they can go seven years – and see multiple doctors – before it is correctly diagnosed," he says. "Endometriosis is one common cause, but pelvic pain can also be related to uterine fibroids, surgical scarring, injury to pelvic muscles, trauma, and disorders of the bowel or bladder. Every system of the body involves that 10-centimeter space in the pelvis, so pelvic pain is something gynecologists have difficulty treating."
Trained in both laparoscopic and robotic techniques, Jones completed his medical training at St. George's University School of Medicine and his OB/GYN residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and is an enthusiastic proponent of minimally invasive procedures.
"In this country, two-thirds of hysterectomies are performed openly," he says. "This is a crime, but unfortunately they are happening every day. A laparoscopic hysterectomy, by contrast, causes less scarring and pain, lowers the risk of infection and results in a much faster recovery. Often they can go home just hours after surgery. I like to tell my patients, 'This is not your mother's hysterectomy.'"
Dean of Health Professions, Bergen Community College
As dean of health professions at Bergen Community College, Susan Barnard is at the helm of a rapidly expanding academic division designed to educate and better prepare students to become the "next generation of practitioners able to navigate health care's changing landscape," she says. "We are moving toward creating opportunities for students and faculty to collaborate in real-world settings."
Last August, the college held a ceremony with plans to break ground in late fall on a $26 million, 62,000-square-foot Health Professions Integrated Teaching Center. The center will feature cutting-edge technology that brings under one roof Bergen Community College's 18 health profession associate degree programs, certificate programs and non-credit credential programs to foster interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The programs are currently scattered across the school's 167-acre Paramus campus. In addition, plans are under way for a paramedic degree program at BCC at the Meadowlands, the first such health profession program on that campus.
"The building is a dream come true for us," says Barnard, who teamed with colleagues to write the New Jersey GO Bond grant proposal in just more than a week. "It's something we've been thinking about for a long time."
The building is planned to open in fall 2015 and will feature classrooms, state-of-the-art laboratories and "real-world settings in a very controlled environment," she says. "Medical simulation will be integrated into all of our programs, providing opportunities to create scenario-based learning that enhances teamwork, reduces critical error, increases patient safety and builds competence related to patient care." Barnard adds that a new dental hygiene clinic will provide the community with opportunities for preventive oral health care.
To create those real-world settings, the center will have environments such as a simulated delivery room, an ambulatory care center, an ICU and other well-equipped spaces. But the innovation doesn't end there. Barnard notes that faculties will tap students in the college's performing arts department to act as patients, further preparing her students to excel in an evolving industry.
"Next-generation health professionals will integrate technologies, cultural competence, community health and changing deliveries of care into their practice," Barnard says. "It's important for us to prepare them for these roles."
Seizing opportunities comes naturally to Barnard, who joined BCC 25 years ago as an adjunct faculty member in the dental hygiene program and was appointed dean of health professions in 2008. In 2010, she was instrumental in securing the college's role as lead agency in a $24.6 million Health Professions Opportunities Grant that opens the door for low-income students to receive education, training and employment in high-paying, high-demand healthcare professions.
"Our students receiving grant funding are required to complete service learning hours that enhance their clinical and professional development and give back to their communities," she adds.
Dr. Soo Mi Park
Non-Invasive Cardiologist, Holy Name Medical Center
A noninvasive cardiologist and champion of women's heart health, Soo Mi Park, M.D., follows in the footsteps of her maternal grandfather, a cardiologist who was the first Korean physician to be inducted as a fellow into the American College of Cardiology.
"His memory is a daily source of inspiration," says Park, who is actively involved in the Korean Medical Program at Holy Name Medical Center.
"In 2008, Mrs. Kyung Hee Choi, Dr. Hee Yang and Dr. Charles Lee spearheaded an annual Korean Health Fair, which offers free screening blood tests a few weeks prior to the health fair," Park says. "On the day of the event, participants are triaged to see physicians of various specialties for consultations. Participation is free, as all of the physicians happily volunteer their time and other costs are covered through fundraising efforts by the Korean Medical Program."
Park divides her time between Holy Name Medical Center, two other local hospitals and a full-time private practice, Mulkay Cardiology Consultants, where she is the only female doctor on staff.
"Women's heart health is finally coming to the forefront," she says. "Everyone knows about heart attacks in men, but women's symptoms present differently and women often put them on the back burner. In reality, heart disease is the No. 1 killer in women. It's very interesting because women multi-task and we sometimes ignore an atypical symptom, thinking it is just muscle pain or indigestion.
"In reality," Park says, "the presenting symptoms for women can include stomach ache, neck pain, nausea, sweating, back pain and anxiety. Not typically the red flags for heart disease."
She has a particular interest in the emerging study of lipidology and is proud that she and her Mulkay Cardiology colleagues are finalizing plans to introduce an on-site Lipid Center, a state-of-the-art facility offering diagnosis and treatment of lipid disorders using advanced screening for abnormal lipid values and counseling on risk factors associated with heart disease. In addition, the practice offers nutritional counseling, echocardiography, vascular diagnostics and nuclear stress testing.
A cum laude graduate of Yale University, Park earned her medical degree at Columbia and completed her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital.
"Even when I was a candy striper at Holy Name and Valley Hospital," the lifelong Bergen County resident says, "I knew I wanted to study medicine."
Appropriately, a collection of her grandfather's stethoscopes is framed and hanging in her office, alongside their ACC membership cards – treasured reminders of their shared passion.
Dr. Yadyra Rivera
Medical Oncologist and Hematologist, Holy Name Medical Center
A medical oncologist and hematologist at the Regional Cancer Center at Holy Name Medical Center, Yadyra Rivera, M.D., is the Teaneck hospital's go-to physician for a range of cancer treatment protocols, but it's her interest in breast cancer that really sets her apart.
"I'm so inspired by the advances in the field of oncology in the last couple of years," Rivera says. "We've moved forward in the molecular understanding of the disease, to the point that we can recognize the specific molecular targets and can use medicines that specifically target an area and avoid other parts of the body."
Called "targeted therapies," the approach maximizes the dosage to a malignant tumor while delivering minimal toxicity to health cells.
"Targeted therapies work by indentifying and attaching themselves only to those molecules," Rivera says.
"Breast cancer treatment is becoming more personalized," she adds. "There is now testing that can predict the risk of recurrence, and this helps us avoid overtreating a chemotherapy patient."
Based on patient tissue sample tests, physicians are now able to predict how breast cancer will look a decade down the road.
In a typical day, Rivera sees more than two dozen new and existing patients, but despite her busy work day, she is actively involved in the hospital's Hispanic Outreach Program, a newer initiative developed to provide the highest level of health care in a culturally sensitive environment. To mark the one-year anniversary of the program, the hospital honored Rivera for the compassionate care she has given to the Hispanic community over the course of her medical career.
Rivera embodies the personalized approach to patient care that is a Holy Name hallmark.
"It's a multidisciplinary approach that uses the expertise of multiple specialists to care for patients," she says. "My goal is that my patients really understand their diagnosis and understand, step by step, their treatment plan. I strive to establish a good relationship with them and to ensure that they understand the decisions we make and make them part of the treatment."
Dr. Andrew Pecora
Vice President of Cancer Series, John Theurer Cancer Center, HackensackUMC
"We are at a point in time when advances in a number of different sciences are creating an explosion of knowledge that will transform the human experience," says Andrew Pecora, M.D., F.A.C.P., C.E.P., chief innovations officer and professor and vice president of cancer services of the John Theurer Cancer Center at HackensackUMC. Certified in internal medicine, oncology and hematology, Pecora believes "things will change more in the next 10 years than they have in the last 50."
Holder of nine patents to use adult bone marrow stem cells to repair damaged hearts, Pecora is one of regenerative medicine's visionary leaders.
"We will no longer treat chronic disease with chronic medications that are only marginally effective," he says. "Instead, we will be able to replace damaged tissue, cells and organs and restore their functionality to normal."
Looking ahead comes naturally to Pecora, who is also visionary officer at NeoStem, a New York-based company that develops and manufactures cell therapies.
"At my heart, I am an entrepreneur," says Pecora, who merges an ability to foresee the future of medicine with a passion for improving patient outcomes. Currently, his research involves developing vaccines and other cellular medicine techniques to boost the capabilities of a patient's immune system to fight cancer and targeted therapies that destroy cancer cells.
"I have always been interested in cell biology and stem cells", he says.
A graduate of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Pecora trained at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and seized on the opportunity to start the Adult Blood and Marrow Stem Cell Transplantation Program at HackensackUMC in 1989. During his 25-year tenure, he has made countless contributions to the hospital, including the aggressive recruitment of leading oncologists, the addition of innovative research and clinical trials, the expansion of patient care services and the acquisition of state-of-the-art technology. U.S. News and World Report ranks HackensackUMC No. 35 among top cancer hospitals in the country and No. 1 in New Jersey.
Incredibly, Pecora still finds time to see patients.
"I never want to give that up," he says. "At my core, I am a healer."
President, Valley Home Care
Although home health care is nothing new, the way it's delivered – and the team delivering it – is. Specially trained nurse clinicians (in areas ranging from cardiology and diabetes to IV therapy and wound care) together with rapid advances in technology have reshaped the home healthcare landscape.
"Our primary goal," says Donna Fry, president of Valley Home Care Inc., a freestanding not-for-profit affiliate of the Valley Health System, "remains to prevent rehospitalization by providing comprehensive innovative home care services to patients in their own homes, but our services have expanded dramatically."
Under Fry's direction, the Paramus-based provider of home care has introduced groundbreaking programs such as Butterflies, which delivers in-home care to children with life-limiting or life-threatening medical conditions, and Stepping Stones, a support program for parents grieving the loss of a child.
"We are also one of the few agencies with a maternal child health program devoted to pediatrics," she says.
One of the most important innovations is the telemanagement program, which enables cardiac patients to monitor their vital signs and more at home via a portable, customizable home monitor, and transmit them to home care nurses in real time through their telephone line.
"Any deviation from the patient's normal readings or a report of a new symptom triggers a call to the patient or caregiver," Fry says. "If we indentify a problem early, we can get them help earlier and usually avoid a return trip to the hospital."
In addition, Fry oversaw the introduction of Functional Freedom: Delay the Disease, an evidence-based fitness program designed to slow the progression of Parkinson's symptoms.
"Our physical and occupational therapists trained for and earned certification in this innovative new program," she says.
Serving more than 13,000 patients a year, the Paramus-based home health care provider employs 400 people in positions including visiting nurses and certified home health aides; physical, occupational and speech therapists; medical social workers; and wound care clinicians.
"Our mission is to anticipate and respond to the changing health care needs of the community with flexibility and innovation," says Fry, who has grown Valley Home Care's work force to include specialists in fields including diabetes, congestive heart failure case management, rehabilitation, perinatal nursing and asthma case management.
"Delivering highly skilled home care is essential in an environment that, increasingly, embraces same-day surgery and early hospital discharge," she says. "We are here to bridge that gap."
Dr. Tanuja Damani
Gastrointestinal Surgeon, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center
Growing up in a family of MBAs, Tanuja Damani, M.D., F.A.C.S., knew early on that medicine would be her career of choice. Damani is the first and only gastrointestinal surgeon on staff at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center to perform a single-site gallbladder removal and one of only a handful of surgeons in the New York metro area who perform the procedure robotically.
"We have gone from an 8- to 10-inch incision used for open gallbladder surgery," she says, "to four 5- to 10-millimeter incisions for laparoscopic surgery, to one small incision hidden in the belly button for robotic gallbladder removal.
"When I chose my specialty," Damani says, "I felt that minimally invasive surgery would be the wave of the future. Now, a decade later, laparoscopic surgery has replaced many open surgeries, becoming the standard of care. Robotic surgery is in its infancy now, but is likely to revolutionize minimally invasive surgery with time. We keep pushing the envelope in terms of how we can perform surgeries less invasively, with excellent outcomes and faster recoveries."
An oncologist and attending surgeon in gastrointestinal, laparoscopic and robotic surgery, Damani was practicing at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York when EHMC recruited her, in 2011, to help grow its gastrointestinal cancer program.
"I knew that Englewood [Hospital] had a wonderful reputation for breast cancer treatment," says Damani, who was excited by the prospect of helping the hospital achieve its goal to deliver that same level of care to GI patients.
In addition to advancing the hospital's GI cancer program, Damani is the hospital's cancer liaison physician for the commission on cancer, playing a key role in growing and supporting its cancer initiatives.
"The hospital," she says, "is transforming the future of oncology care with the construction of a new Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, which is designed to offer patients a coordinated, personalized treatment plan with seamless screening, imaging, diagnosis, disease management and support services in one location."
Scheduled to be completed in 2016, the three-story expansion will be a state-of-the-art center Damani and her colleagues believe will become the regional leader in treating GI cancers.
In addition to her work at Englewood Hospital, Damani is an assistant clinical professor of surgery at her alma mater, Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
"My dad said that, from the age of 4, I have wanted to be a surgeon," she says.
Now she's not only practicing her passion, but also teaching it.
Dr. Dimitry Rabkin
Founder and Medical Director, Esthetica MD, Englewood
Recognizing both groundbreaking advances in aesthetic medicine and patients' increasing disdain for post-surgery recovery time, Dimitry Rabkin, M.D., F.A.C.S., founded Esthetica MD in Englewood last spring. A state-of-the-art center devoted exclusively to providing patients with natural-looking, age-reversing facial aesthetic services, the facility offers "a non-invasive alternative to surgery, delivering life-changing enhancements in as little as 30 minutes," says Rabkin, who is also director of minimally invasive facial rejuvenation at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital.
Rabkin credits his gift for facial analysis and aesthetic medicine to both his training in facial reconstruction, head and neck surgery, and his undergrad art education, which included architectural and mechanical design.
"The skill sets I learned in those disciplines allow me to provide my patients with the most balanced, symmetrical and naturally attractive outcomes," says Rabkin, who earned his medical degree at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University.
Before establishing Esthetica MD, Rabkin sharpened his skills in a far less glamorous field – reconstruction of traumatic facial injuries. In that setting, he became a recognized expert at facial analysis, and since then he has parlayed that expertise into pursuing a more "subliminal approach to facial rejuvenation," he says.
"I want to spare my patients the shock of overly dramatic and unnatural facial cosmetic procedures. I prefer sequenced, staged, additive procedures and find that they can often have a life-improving effect," he says, noting the ease of transforming the shape of a person's nose with liquid rhinoplasty. "This could be a woman who has always disliked her nose, and suddenly in just a few minutes we can change it. And the boost in self-confidence she feels can dramatically impact her life and how she interacts with others."
Rabkin specializes in "relatively atraumatic procedures that are customized to each individual patient." Those include everything from medical-grade facials and peels to Botox, collagen induction therapy, liquid rhinoplasty, facial contouring, and elimination of folds and wrinkles.
"The goal is a fresh, natural and balanced look with minimal downtime," he says.
In determining which patients are best suited for the array of new procedures on the market, Rabkin clocks many hours "weeding through the hype to zero in on the things that are really beneficial.
"There are new devices introduced every six months," he says. "If you are a carpenter with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but if you have numerous tools at your disposal, you can choose the one that will deliver the best and most natural outcome in facial rejuvenation."
Board Member, Children's Therapy Center
What brought Tania Gold to the Children's Therapy Center 14 years ago is the same thing that keeps her coming back.
"We had moved to Bergen County and the minute I walked in, the Children's Therapy Center felt like a typical, happy preschool," says the Tenafly mother of three, whose son, Jonah, now 16, still enjoys the Children's Therapy Center's after-school programs. "The teachers had such enthusiasm for the students. As a parent you celebrate even the smallest accomplishment, but to see the teachers and therapists get just as excited was so important and so amazing. Other places we had seen had an institutional feeling, and this felt like home."
At that time, the Children's Therapy Center served children only through the age of 5, and "parents of soon-to-age-out kids were desperate to see the school expand yet retain its small, intimate atmosphere," Gold says.
Now a board member, Gold enthusiastically undertook the school's first capital campaign in 2004, raising $2 million to expand the school through age 8.
"I was an incredibly fulfilling experience and I became so inspired," she says.
In short order, as children again began to age out of the Children's Therapy Center, the decision was made to expand through age 13, financed by a second, smaller capital campaign.
"Many other programs mix older-aged kids with younger ones, and that is scary for a parent," she says. "I know that feeling of desperation and fear. To keep your child in this safe, happy place is all you want for them."
With a third capital campaign in the works, Children's Therapy Center looks to expand once again. The new program will see students through their high school years.
"As the children grow up, we grow with them," she says.
On its Midland Park and Fair Lawn campuses, the center serves 111 children, aged 18 months to 13, from towns throughout Bergen County and beyond.
Through her long association with the center, Gold has discovered a gift for fundraising. In addition to working on the center's capital campaigns, Gold pours her energy into the annual Dinner Dance and Auction, which she has managed for 13 years, and Whining Women, an annual event she and a few girlfriends dreamed up six years ago that brings together more than 200 women for cocktails and mingling.
Although Jonah's higher functioning status means he is no longer enrolled as a student, Gold continues to rely on the friendships she has forged over the years and her son benefits through after-school programs and support groups.
"Together we find humor in really painful situations and we inspire each other," Gold says.
"You have a choice about how you are going to handle your life. You can rise to the occasion or not. My father, whose professional experience was in nonprofits, turned to me when Jonah was diagnosed and said, 'You can turn this into something so positive' – and he was right."
Dr. Kevin Yao
Neurological Oncology, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center
In the complex field of neurosurgical oncology, Kevin Yao, M.D., has one goal.
"I strive to maximize each patient's quality of life by restoring and preserving their neurological function," he says.
Calling his field "a super subspecialty," he explains techniques and procedures that were inconceivable only a few years ago. One area of expertise is stereotactic radiosurgery, a cutting-edge technique that provides surgically precise, single-time, high-dose radiation treatment to a primary or metastatic tumor of the brain or spine, essentially sparing radiation-related injury to surrounding tissue.
"It is highly effective in killing or stopping the growth of tumors," he says, "and we do it without an incision or even a hospital stay."
Radiosurgery isn't for everyone, he cautions. "But many brain or spinal tumors and cancers that were once deemed inoperable can now be controlled or even cured with radiosurgery," he says.
In addition to that non-surgical technique, Yao, a neurosurgical oncologist at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, is an expert in awake craniotomy and brain mapping, a procedure that allows for surgical excision of tumors in regions of the brain that are critical to movement and speech.
"Sedatives and pain medications are provided to assure patient comfort, but the patient is fully awake," he says. "Surgery in an awake patient allows us to perform intraoperative functional brain mapping and neurological examination in order to prevent injury to a patient's speech or motor function."
Yao is also well known in the field of surgical and radiosurgical treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, a painful nerve disorder of the face. Though there are drug therapies for the condition, "this approach is often a highly effective alternative for patients, particularly those who can't tolerate the side effects of medications," he says. "I always strive to provide patients afflicted with tumors or cancer a treatment that is both minimally invasive and maximally effective, with cure as the ultimate goal whenever possible."
An assistant clinical professor of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Yao stays actively involved in teaching and groundbreaking research.
"One of the things the cancer field is moving toward is more personalized treatment," he says. "As we further our understanding of the genetics underlying cancer, fingerprinting of a patient's tumor and individualized tailored treatment becomes more of a reality. These techniques continue to get better and more efficient."
CEO, HackensackUMC at Pascack Valley
"It only took five years," Chad Melton says with a smile.
Melton is CEO of HackensackUMC at Pascack Valley, the once embattled Westwood hospital that emerged on June 1, 2013, as a new 128-bed community hospital. Under Melton's guidance, the fully renovated, state-of-the-art, $150 million facility has a lot to celebrate. A joint venture between HackensackUMC and LHP Hospital Group Inc., it received the first license New Jersey has granted to a new hospital in nearly 30 years, tripled the physician base in the underserved communities of Pascack and Northern Valley, and treated more than 6,000 emergency room patients in its first four months of operation.
One of the country's youngest hospital administrators, Melton is an early riser known for his leadership and energy. Known to hand pick his employees, he is passionately committed to "bringing physicians back to Pascack Valley." When the hospital closed in 2008, there were 250 physicians on staff. Today, nearly 700 physicians have joined (or are in the process of joining) the medical staff. He attributes his success to achieving a balance between creating a patient-centric culture and one that engages and values its staff.
To that end, Melton established the Physician Roundtable, a series of monthly meetings with physicians, and collaborated with Hackensack University Health System to develop clinical integration plans for vascular, thoracic and neurosurgical programs. Next he'll spearhead the hospital's quest for accreditation as a Stroke Center, Breast Center and Joint Center of Excellence.
"Things you don't normally see at a community hospital," he says.
In just four months of operation, the hospital achieved a patient satisfaction rating in the 86th percentile – something Melton says usually can take years.
And while high ratings are gratifying, Melton's focus is on gaining the trust and respect of the community.
"I thrive on a challenge," he says. "In health care, it's never the same thing, the environment is constantly changing and you have to be able to adapt. It's a highly regulated industry and we are in a highly competitive marketplace, so we have to stay on our toes."
Dr. Kourosh T. Asgarian
Chief, Cardiothoracic Surgery, St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center
As Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, Kourosh Asgarian, D.O., F.A.C.S., heads the state's busiest center for minimally invasive aortic valve replacement.
"We've gone from a week-long hospital stay to a two- or three-day stay with less pain and a return to normal activity in two weeks instead of six weeks," says Asgarian, who is one of only a handful of surgeons in the state to perform the procedure.
Robotic coronary bypass surgery is another area of expertise. Also known as "beating heart surgery," this less invasive approach lowers the need for blood transfusions and results in shorter hospital stays, lower risk of infection, and less pain, scarring and blood loss.
"We have patients who have returned to their normal activities in just two days," Asgarian says. "It's great for people, especially in this economy, who can't afford to miss work."
He is also an expert at minimally invasive mitral valve repair.
"Through a keyhole incision in the underarm, we are able to repair and replace the mitral valve without opening the chest. The heart valve abnormality is especially common in women and the procedure leaves almost no scarring," says Asgarian, who was drawn to heart surgery because "it is technically challenging and there is instant improvement. Afterward, patients are better right away."
Following 10 years at Hackensack University Medical Center and three years at Staten Island University Hospital, Asgarian was recruited by St. Joseph's in 2011 to head the hospital's revitalized cardiothoracic surgery program. Beyond the professional recognition, the move offered a lot of benefits for the Jersey-born physician and former high school football player, including more time to coach his three young boys in youth sports.
Dr. Zvi Marans
Chief of Pediatric Cardiology, The Valley Hospital and Holy Name Medical Center
Proving the age-old cliché that the busier you are, the more you are able to do, Zvi Marans, M.D., juggles a surprisingly full plate. He is chief of pediatric cardiology at both The Valley Hospital and Holy Name Medical Center, is an associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center, and was recently named president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, a volunteer position he calls "a perfect parallel to what I do professionally.
"I am blessed that I can spend my day caring for children, some of whom have complex congenital heart disease. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority can be repaired and the children can go on to lead happy, healthy lives," says Marans, who delights in now attending the weddings of some of his once tiny patients.
"Making a new diagnosis of severe congenital heart disease and sharing this news with the family is the most challenging part of my job," he says. "In an instant, this turns the family's world upside down. At this stage, we are not only medical doctors, but a support system to the entire family. I am most often able to reassure them that the prognosis is very good and that I expect to be dancing at their child's wedding."
Marans and three other pediatric cardiologists see patients in a Columbia-affiliated office in Paramus. Though he calls the work "emotionally taxing," Marans is encouraged by outcomes that are "continuously improving."
"We are in a time when our surgeons can repair almost everything that comes our way," he says. "We can take very sick babies, with very small hearts, and make them better. In fact, we are doing more and more of our work without having to resort to surgery. Through catheters, we can open narrow areas, implant new valves and even close a hole in the heart."
The future is even brighter, says Marans, who envisions a day when, "we will be able to clone a patient's own heart, erasing any risk of complication from foreign material.
"This accomplishment may be decades away," he says, "but I believe it may be possible in my lifetime."
The "caring and saving motif" that fuels his day job is mirrored in his new post as president of the Jewish Federation.
"Federation serves a large cross-section of the Jewish community in so many ways," he says. "Just as an example, we provide much-needed hot kosher meals for seniors through our Kosher Meals on Wheels program, and socialization for Holocaust survivors through our Café Europa. Historically, over the last 22 years, we have been a part of the international effort that brought 100,000 Ethiopian Jews, whose well-being was threatened by a destabilized political situation in Ethiopia, to Israel."
Marans has very specific things he'd like to accomplish during his tenure as president.
"One of my major goals is to further cultivate the lay leadership in our Federation and to reach an even higher level of community commitment and involvement," he says.
As a husband and father of four children, Marans says, "We have a very active life but there's always something new and interesting we find we can get involved in together."
Executive Vice President, Chief Nursing and Patient Care Officer, HackensackUMC
As health care costs continue to climb, Dianne Aroh, M.S., R.N., NEA – BC, spends part of any day thinking about ways to rein it in. As HackensackUMC's executive vice president and chief nursing and patient care officer, she is at the forefront of the nonprofit hospital's move toward value-based health care.
"While keeping patients at the center of everything we do," she says, "we are increasingly turning to clinicians to improve patient outcomes, lower costs and deliver better value. This approach will ultimately impact and improve the bottom line. We are finding ways to streamline care while still providing the highest quality care at a lower cost."
Aroh oversees a team of more than 3,000 patient-care-services staff, including 2,200 nurses, and gets high marks for her clinical expertise and ability to build a collaborative work environment. Partnering with other senior execs, she is responsible for developing and implementing a strategic plan that includes "working toward being at the Medicare break-even point," she says. "It will be another few years, but we will get there."
No doubt Aroh is the right woman for the job. In addition to her 27 years of professional nursing experience, she is a recognized community leader and frequent speaker on nursing leadership. She is a member of the New York Times Chief Nursing Officer Advisory Board, serves on the board of Felician College and is a member of the NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Committee. Most recently she was named one of the "Best 50 Women in Business" by NJBIZ, a business news publication, which noted among her accomplishments the highly regarded town hall forums she established to encourage and promote communication between hospital executives and staff.
For Aroh, a typical day is "spending as much time as I can understanding what those who care for patients need [in order] to deliver safe care. This is the most important priority."
From meeting with patients, families and physicians to speaking with staff on all shifts, she is deeply committed to "figuring out how to manage with less," she says. "We all agree that something has to change. Medicare break-even is our way of recognizing that healthcare costs have to come down. We have to get rid of the waste through application of lean strategies in health care. There are a lot of unknowns, and a value-based approach will help us through those unknowns."
Dr. George Lin
Physician Relations, HackensackUMC at Pascack Valley
When it came time for Chad Melton to start recruiting doctors to staff what was once Pascack Valley Hospital, the newly named CEO of HackensackUMC at Pascack Valley turned to George Lin, M.D., to serve as the hospital's physician advisor and medical staff liaison. A trusted local physician with strong ties to both HackensackUMC and the community, Lin had worked at the Westwood hospital for five years, from 2002 until its closing in 2007, and embraced the opportunity.
"I love working with my patients," Lin says, "but I was honored to be asked. Not only did I love working at Pascack Valley, but my youngest daughter was born there. The hospital means so much to this community and to my family and to me personally."
"Dr. Lin was an ally from the beginning," Melton says, "and was instrumental to our successful opening, one month ahead of schedule. He helped design the workflow process for our electronic health records, assisted in the recruitment of more than 800 physicians to the medical staff, provided training and education to our clinical staff, and helped us achieve not one but three successful regulatory reviews in a 30-day period of time."
In addition to recruiting Bergen County's top talent, Lin also assists the hospital as it expands and enhances its menu of services, including wound care (the hospital will have one of the area's only hyperbaric chambers) and bariatric surgery. Board-certified in critical care medicine, pulmonary medicine and sleep medicine, Lin also maintains a busy private practice in nearby Emerson.
Calling himself "a local product," Lin is a magna cum laude graduate of a unique seven-year program that allowed him to enter medical school as soon as he completed high school. The B.A./M.D. program combined three years of undergraduate work at Boston University with four years at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
"It's wonderful to be a part of bringing something positive back to this community," says Lin, who, appropriately, admitted the first patient to the newly opened hospital.
"It's like coming home again," he says with a smile.
Dr. William J. Focazio
Chairman and Chief Medical Officer, Eternity Medicine Institute
Believing that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way people approach their health, William J. Focazio, M.D., founded the Eternity Medicine Institute with clinics in Clifton and New York City.
"Currently, ours is a reactive health care model that addresses sickness," he says. "Under such a system, we go to the doctor when we are sick. Symptoms are treated but the causes are often ignored. Our purpose is to empower people to manage their health through a comprehensive prevention-focused program that seeks and detects disease before it occurs."
Focazio is unabashedly open-minded. He trained under renowned infectious disease specialist Dr. Leon Smith (even treating New Jersey's first patient with AIDS) and completed fellowships in infectious diseases at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark and in gastroenterology at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Paterson.
"Throughout my career, I've always felt that we should take the best aspect of every modality and meld them together," he says. "At Eternity, we bring together different facets of key modalities, such as homeopathy, conventional medicine (allopathy), Eastern medicine, genetic testing and micronutrient supplements into what we call 'the new physical exam.'
"Our diagnostic toolbox is not conventional," Focazio says. He believes a comprehensive, personalized physical exam includes screenings for cancer and thyroid, adrenal and cardiovascular disease, as well as genetic and cognitive testing and full body scanning.
"The last frontier of medicine is prevention," he says. "We can now nurture health with scientific certainty."
Focazio has worked his medical magic on some of the most challenging patients. As founder and CEO of P.A.S.T. Retired Athletes Medical Group, he devotes countless pro bono hours to nurturing retired professional athletes back to health though an integrated medical and behavioral healthcare program.
Former gridiron greats, including Ray Lucas of the New York Jets and Dave Robinson and Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers, say Focazio's program, which has been featured on HBO's Real Sports and in Sports Illustrated, saved their lives.
Now Focazio is taking it a step further, piloting a concussion education program designed to empower high school athletes to take a more active, preventive role in their health. He will partner with his former pro athlete patients to take the message statewide and, eventually, nationwide.
A labor of love best describes the 45 years, collectively, that Sue A. Marchese-Debiak and Michelle Hart-Loughlin have devoted to helping others recover from substance abuse disorder and mental illness in Bergen County and beyond. Recognizing that the two diseases are very often intertwined, the women work together to connect Bergen County residents with the help they need, particularly those who are uninsured or underinsured.
"Instead of being viewed as a moral or personality deficit," Marchese-Debiak says, "substance abuse should be seen as a chronic illness. It is the goal of this department to erase the stigma attached to addiction and see it recognized and treated as such. The process of recovery should be viewed as coming from a place of hope, not shame."
"I'd like to see people talk about mental illness in the same way they talk about obesity and diabetes," Hart-Loughlin says. "It's a disease like any other, but unfortunately people who are affected with the disease often hesitate to seek treatment because of the stigma. I hope it can be reduced and ultimately eliminated, in order to reduce suffering and increase recovery for all who have the disease."
They are particularly troubled about the rise in heroin use in Bergen County and are seizing opportunities to build awareness and encourage a healthy, drug-free lifestyle. In October, the Department of Health Services celebrated "Red Ribbon Week," a county-wide initiative to promote awareness of substance abuse and its consequences.
"When heroin began to hit the streets five or six years ago, we knew we were in for trouble," says Marchese-Debiak, who has more than 20 years of experience working in the field of addiction treatment.
Marchese-Debiak joined the Bergen County Office of Health Services in 2002 to develop and implement a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment at Spring House Halfway House, a residence for women in 12-step recovery. Believing that women needed a different type of treatment, she expanded its services to include gender-specific programs with treatment for physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
"Women come in with quite the gamut of abuse, and as such their treatment tends to be more intensive," Marchese-Debiak says. "I added a mental health component to the 12-step program. Now, we address the physical, emotional, educational and familial components of the recovery process."
Hart-Loughlin was in just second grade when she wrote a paper about a relative who was a paranoid schizophrenic.
"I was profoundly affected by her, but not embarrassed by her," Hart-Loughlin says. "It inspired me to pursue a career in this field so I could develop and promote programs designed to improve the quality of life for people like her."
Two such initiatives include a training video designed to educate law enforcement and family members on how to respond during a mental health crisis and a pilot program that will add an emotional wellness screening to the standard in-school screenings like vision and hearing.
Both women have high hopes for the state's drug court system initiative, which is now in place in every county and is hailed as a long-term solution to drug addiction.
"Instead of going to jail," Hart-Loughlin says, "nonviolent drug-related offenders voluntarily go into treatment and are held to a program and a three- to five-year plan."
Since its inception in 2002, more than 14,000 offenders have enrolled in the drug court program. Hart-Loughlin hopes that court initiative can be expanded soon to meet the unique needs of individuals who have chronic mental illness and cycle in and out of the justice system.
Founder, AliveAndKickn Foundation
Harnessing the universal appeal of soccer to share his story and build much-needed awareness for early detection of colon cancer, Dave Dubin is an engaging and committed advocate for colorectal cancer screenings. A two-time colon cancer survivor, Dubin stepped into the spotlight two years ago, founding AliveAndKickn, a Bergen-based organization dedicated to preventing colon and genetic colon cancer by spreading the message of regular screenings and early detection.
"Using the international game of soccer will help us get the message out that colon cancer can affect younger people and women," he says.
Given his passion for the game, Dubin's promotion vehicle of choice is the AliveAndKickathon, a high-energy 24-hour marathon of soccer presented in partnership with Hackensack University Medical Center's John Theurer Cancer Center and the New York Red Bulls. Through the organization's website, he also encourages soccer enthusiasts to organize similar events in their own communities.
"Among non-smokers, colon cancer is the leading cancer killer," he says. "Each year, more than 150,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer and 50,000 will die. We believe that we can make a difference, and one way is by building awareness."
Though the statistics are sobering, Dubin says there are now lifesaving diagnostic measures and therapies available that allow doctors to treat more patients more effectively.
"Early detection, however, remains the single most important element in treating these kinds of cancers," he says.
Dubin was first diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 29.
"Although it wasn't really a shock – my father and grandfather are also colon cancer survivors – it was a surprise at that young age," he says.
His cancer returned when he was 40, just after his older brother was diagnosed at the age of 37.
"At that point, we felt something was amiss so I went for genetic testing," he says. Testing revealed that he had Lynch Syndrome, essentially a genetic predisposition to colon and other cancers. Typically, about 7 percent of colon cancer is Lynch-related, and as more testing takes place, "those statistics will probably go higher."
Operating AliveAndKickn is a labor of love for Dubin and his wife, Robin. Both have full-time careers yet manage to devote countless hours to their cause and their three boys. A longtime community volunteer and former Haworth councilman, Dubin has served on the boards of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, the Community Blood Service of Bergen County and Bergen Leads. But as younger and younger people are diagnosed, Dubin is eager to make colon and genetic colon cancer "a part of the conversation in the same way that Angelina Jolie has lent her star power to BRCA1 [a genetic mutation that causes breast cancer]," he says. "Statistically, it is warranted."