Top Docs of Coastal Virginia 2016
Finding a quality physician that you trust is invaluable. From the birth of a new baby, to emergency visits for bumps, bruises or broken bones, to getting that suspicious mole checked out, to determining whether you need that hip or knee replacement—and everything between and beyond—it’s important to know that you’re in good hands. That’s why we coordinate our annual Top Docs survey, presenting the most devoted physicians in 53 medical specialties, as determined by their peers. This list of Coastal Virginia’s leading physicians also appears on CoastalVirginiaMag.com for easy reference throughout the year.
Our special focus for this issue is cancer. And just as the disease is widespread, it takes a broad range of specialties to detect, operate, treat and research this illness. We selected six top doctors from five specialties (two doctors’ results were tied), including breast cancer surgery, gynecologic oncology, hematology, oncology and radiation oncology. These doctors share various inspirations for getting into their chosen fields, the passions that keep them going and the ways they’re making a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families.
About Our Survey
The 2016 Coastal Virginia Magazine Top Docs survey was administered by a third party, Data Joe Research Company, which specializes in peer-to-peer surveys. More than 4,000 doctors in the Coastal Virginia area were given the opportunity to vote for area doctors within all specialties from March through mid-April 2016. The results were tabulated to determine Coastal Virginia Magazine’s 2016 Top Docs results, which are featured in this article.
Breast Cancer Surgery
Dr. Claire Carman Practices Humor, Creativity And Bluntness While Inspiring Her Patients To Be Their Own Advocates—Armed With Information And Options
By Kristen De Deyn Kirk
Here’s the first thing that might stand out when you meet Dr. Claire Carman, a surgeon with Breast Care Specialists PC in Norfolk: Her sense of humor.
“It’s Carman with two As,” she says about her last name. “Not an E. I can only do one man at a time.”
Yet, Carman says colleagues will describe her as blunt. When dealing with them, patients and their family members, she says she shares all of the details of a patient’s breast cancer diagnosis and succinctly maps out a treatment and recovery plan.
“I go over everything and tell my patients to go talk to their friends and then come back,” she says. “I know that they’re going to hear this and that from the church ladies or something else from someone else. I want them to come back and ask more questions. I’m not one to pat you on the hand and say, ‘Everything will be OK;’ I don’t sugarcoat. I say, ‘This is the problem, and this is the solution.’ I don’t want the patient to see herself as a victim.”
Carman is thankful for the all of the publicity that has been generated for breast cancer detection and treatment during the decades she has been practicing. She’s gone from seeing patients who needed her to be an advocate for them to watching patients now be their own advocates, armed with information and options.
At the same time, she doesn’t want women and their loved ones to be overcome by fear because they hear so much about breast cancer.
“I want to ratchet down the perceived fear of breast cancer,” she says. “It has become more like a chronic illness. It is highly treatable. We find tumors much smaller, and we have such targeted treatments, thanks to research coming to fruition. Women come to me and think they’ll have both breasts removed. I talk about the Goldilocks solution—not too little, not too much, just the right amount (of treatment).”
She stresses that now the number one killer of women is heart disease and that diabetes and weight are also bigger concerns than breast cancer. With all the attention given to breast cancer with “pink promotions,” some women might not realize that.
Choosing Breast Surgery
Carman is a third generation doctor. Her father was a pathologist who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder after the Vietnam War. He decided to open a general practice instead of working in pathology, and Carman’s mother, a nurse, ran his practice.
“I really tried to do everything but medicine,” Carman says with a laugh. “When I got to medical school, people kept saying, ‘Oh you’re going to be a doctor because your dad is,’ and I’d say, ‘No, it’s because of my mom. She told me to always be able to take care of myself.’ When my mother was in school, you could only be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher. It was really my mother’s finger poking me to do more (with the options I had).”
Carman spent her childhood doing what many currently residing in Coastal Virginia do or did: living all over the country, with her father regularly taking on new positions in the Air Force. She attended college at Texas A&M (after “going to 13 different schools”) and stayed for medical school. A dream of becoming a plastic surgeon then brought her to Eastern Virginia Medical School, where they had one of the top plastic surgeon residencies.
“As I was rotated through a general surgery rotation, I really enjoyed the patients I did mastectomies on,” Carman says. “At that time, patients stayed in the hospital for a few days so you got to know them, and I liked them. When I was a third-year medical student, the surgeon I worked with was also a breast surgeon, and I really enjoyed working with those patients.”
Rising To The Top
So now, some 30 years later, why does she think she has been voted one of Coastal Virginia’s Top Docs?
“I’ve been here a long time, and a lot of people know me?” she deadpans.
Pushed, she says it could be because she’s passionate about what she does.
Carman likes to do her own biopsies on women who have had abnormal mammograms.
“It establishes trust,” she notes. “If I see them before any biopsies, there’s no bruising or bleeding already, and I see them as they really are. I start thinking about how to manage care for the next few appointments and down the line for the next 10 years.”
Cancer is a team sport for Carman. She likes to make an appointment for patients to meet the other team members involved with their care so they can help pick the final team. Most important through every step, she believes, is giving patients time to understand information.
“It can be really hard,” she says. “I show them the whole picture. It takes a while to process this information. There’s not just one kind of breast cancer but four main ones. They might wonder why I’m saying something different than their friend in church had done. I ask them, ‘Would you marry your sister’s husband? What’s right for her might not be right for you.’ I only had one or two say yes to that question! I want them to make decisions and be happy with them in 10 years. You don’t want them in even five years to be thinking, ‘shoulda woulda coulda.’”
While Carman is busy seeing 80 to 100 patients a week, she also strives to look at new techniques.
“You have to raise the bar and raise the standard of care,” she says. “What I tell a patient today might not be what I tell her in six months. I only do one thing, so I have to be the best at it and be on top of that game.
The little time Carman has for relaxing involves a hobby many might not guess at: scrapbooking.
“I do it with a lot of my patients!” she’s fast to offer.
For one of her radiologist’s birthdays, she made a big card with photographs and had the rest of the staff sign it. For weddings, she has decorated up to 15 scrapbook pages coordinated with the wedding’s theme. She’ll ask a young guest to be in charge of having guests sign the book.
“Someone made one for me, and when I came home from my honeymoon, I read it and cried. People will write things there that they won’t say to your face.”
Dr. Stacey Rogers Provides A Continuum Of Care To Help Her Patients Live With Cancer And Balance Quality Of Life With Treatments
By Kristen De Deyn Kirk
Dr. Stacey Rogers knew she wanted to be a doctor since childhood, thanks in part to a long family history of women in medicine.
“We have so many nurses,” says the gynecologic oncologist.
She didn’t know, however, that she’d live in the South and help mostly older women.
“I wanted to work in pediatrics at first, but then figured out that it wasn’t for me,” shares Rogers, who grew up in the Northeast. “I became interested in women’s health in medical school, and after my internship, where I worked with such impressive gynecologic oncologists, I knew what I wanted to do. It’s a great combination of surgery and internal medicine.”
Virginia became her home in the way many find the commonwealth: through the military. As a new college graduate, she had a choice between a low-cost state medical school in a community she wasn’t crazy about and a private medical school, University of Vermont. The price tag there: $35,000. To pay, Rogers joined the Navy and secured a scholarship. She fulfilled her time commitment to the Navy through her residency at Naval Medical Hospital San Diego and a position at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.
Then came a big decision in 2004: Stay with the Navy; possibly deploy and not practice in her field; and leave her first child—or “retire” and practice in the private sector. She chose Coastal Virginia permanently and joined Virginia Oncology Associates.
Rogers humbly wonders why she’s recognized as one of the area’s best surgeons:
“I don’t know,” she says when asked if she can guess the reason. “I’m not someone who would win a popularity contest; I’m extremely introverted. I think colleagues see me as reliable and professional, and patients as attentive, compassionate and caring.”
What she hopes both groups see the most is passion.
“You have to have it in any profession. You have to enjoy what you do. If a lack of passion isn’t obvious the first time a patient meets a doctor, it will be the second or third time; that’s not good,” Rogers says. “There’s never a morning when I say, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’”
Although Rogers is passionate about her work, the days are still emotional. About 40 percent of her patients are in the pre-cancer stage. They have received test results that show a possible concern.
“There’s a lot of anxiety for the patient and the family,” Rogers says. “They bring family members with them, and everyone is affected.”
Rogers tries to reassure patients with honesty and a treatment plan.
“If I think it could be cancer, I will tell them,” she continues. “At the same time, I try to allay fears for everyone with the plan and understanding. Family members—spouses, sisters, children—can feel selfish thinking about themselves, and I tell them that is OK to do.”
Part of the job Rogers enjoys the most is the continuum of care she’s able to provide: She helps patients receive a diagnosis and then can deliver treatment in the form of surgery and chemotherapy and also track progress through follow-up visits.
“I work with patients from one year to 15 years,” she notes. “We don’t talk about curing cancer but living with cancer and balancing quality of life with treatments.”
In the last three years, Rogers has mastered robotic surgery, which is less invasive, requires a shorter hospital stay and leads to faster recoveries.
“It was a challenge to go to training, after being away from it,” she admits, “but there are so many benefits to the patients.”
Rogers continues her dedication to improving care by participating in clinical trials run through U.S. Oncology. She’s currently part of a study on chemotherapy treatment protocols for patients with recurrent cancers.
Her personal life has changed as well since her decision to leave the Navy: Rogers added to her family with another daughter and a Labradoddle, and she stays busy outside of work reading, exercising (spin class is a favorite) and gardening.
“I love my flowers,” she says. “They help relieve stress.”
For Dr. Robert Squatrito, The Key Ingredients Are Being Knowledgeable In His Field While Staying Attentive To Patients And Their Families
By Kristen De Deyn Kirk
Dr. Robert Squatrito, who trained at Medical College of Virginia, Penn State and University of Iowa, was drawn to medicine initially by the combination of science and the ability to work with people. The actual patients, however, drew him into gynecological oncology.
“I rotated onto that service during my training. I found that group of women rewarding,” he says. “When you’re a medical student, you’re the lowest person on the totem pole. You have to do all the stuff no one else wants to. You have to examine the patients really early in the morning. Nurses, doctors, everyone tends to treat you badly. One morning around 4:30 or 5, the first door I opened, the woman said ‘Come on in,’ and she chatted with me as I checked her. When I was done, she said, ‘Thank you so much for checking on me.’ I thought, ‘Oh this is odd; everybody else just grumbles at you and calls you names and kicks you out.’ I thought, ‘This is a nice, appreciative population of people. Maybe I could work here!’”
What’s kept him with it all these years?
“It just seems so important to me,” says Squatrito, who is part of Virginia Oncology Associates and Eastern Virginia Medical School. “They’re worried when they have a diagnosis of cancer, and it puts their lives on hold and their family’s life on hold. I feel like I have to keep being involved. It makes me put my own concerns aside. They draw me in every day.”
In 1998, fond memories of Virginia’s people and weather during med school led Squatrito to search for a job in the area, and Virginia Oncology had an opening. He soon moved from a teaching position in Vermont for the job. Since then, he’s received numerous awards and recognitions and became one of the first locally to master robotic surgeries—while staying humble about it all.
“There are a lot of doctors doing a good job; I can’t get a big head about being recognized,” Squatrito says. “I’ve always thought the key ingredients in this field are to be very, very skilled and knowledgeable about what you do but also very attentive to your patients and their families. They have to go hand in hand. If you have a doc who is great at what he does but isn’t nice to you, that isn’t someone I want to go to.”
A mentor he had after his training told him, “Take good care of your patients, and take good care of the referring doctors because they’re trusting you.”
And most important when working with patients is being on their wavelength and understanding what they’re trying to convey. Squatrito says patients will give you “90 percent of the story” if a doctor will just listen to them.
“I tend not to push the conversation or direct it or fire off a lot of questions,” he shares. “I like to get to know someone and let them talk, and the same with the family.”
Squatrito’s happiest moments may be with patients who had particularly hard battles and they now, 10 years later, come in with pictures of grandkids.
“Those are proud times, when you have someone who thought she might die at 55, and now she’s 70, and she’s coming in just once a year for a checkup, and she’s telling you how her family has grown,” he says. “I have one patient who tells me to hurry up with the exam because we have more important things, like her grandkids, to talk about. She’ll take out all the pictures and show me.”
Through Radiation Technology, Mentoring Other Doctors And Working Face-To-Face With His Patients, Dr. Mark S. Sinesi Makes A Positive Difference In People’s Lives
By Barrett Baker
Dr. Mark S. Sinesi’s medical resume actually began at home. His father was a physician, and two of his three brothers are radiation oncologists. However, he didn’t initially start off with a desire to become a doctor. After he received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering, he was interested in designing molecules that would shield against radiation injuries.
“I was interested in bench science research,” Sinesi says, “and as I saw basic science discoveries being made, I then became more interested in understanding the human application of these scientific discoveries, which eventually led me to clinical radiation oncology.”
After graduating from Boston University’s School of Medicine and completing an Internal Medicine internship at Caritas Carney Hospital, he served his residency at Tufts Medical School. For the past 10-plus years he has been the chair for radiation oncology at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
“We’re very blessed to have a medical school like EVMS in an area this size,” he says. “The mission of EVMS is to teach, to do research and to provide service to patients and the community. I’m very interested in all three aspects of our mission.”
In pursuit of that mission, he sees patients every day, he oversees students who are participating in research—both basic science research as well as clinical research in refining radiation techniques—and he’s deeply involved with his patients’ treatment.
“We’re very busy with patient care that’s delivered in a variety of ways,” he says. “We’ve got conventional radiation therapy. We’ve got radioactive isotope implant work that is a godsend for many of our patients. And we have CyberKnife technology, which is a robotically driven, high-precision type of radiation. We’re the only ones in the area who have it, and that’s what I spend most of my clinical activities on. It’s really remarkable.”
CyberKnife is an advanced form of radiation that is very intense on the treatment area but very gentle to the surrounding tissue. It is comprised of an industrial robotic arm that is equipped with a linear accelerator that puts out a thin beam of high-intensity radiation.
“It has a computer drive that allows us to attack a target within the human body from a variety of different angles so that we can use in excess of 100 different beams coming at a given spot without any of those beams overlapping,” he says. “So each individual beam of radiation is very gentle—delivering in the range of only 1 percent of the total dose—but where the beams combine on the target, you get a very intense radiation dose. As you can well imagine, the geometry and configuration of those beams is a complicated sort of puzzle that needs to be solved for each individual patient.”
For Sinesi though, the best part of the job is being able to work face-to-face with his patients.
“Doing a job where you meet someone who has been told they have cancer, which is possibly the worst news that they’ve had in their life, and being able to show them a potential solution to this problem, then working with them to accomplish that is very wonderful, rewarding work,” he says. “Most of the patients that I see, because of early detection, have relatively early stage, curable cancers, and in fact are cured of those cancers. But when someone comes to me even with a widespread cancer, there is usually something helpful we can do, and that’s not to say we engage in futile efforts to cure something that can’t be cured. No. What we do are gentle treatments to enhance a person’s quality of life, for however long that is. Helping people to understand accomplishable goals—and there are always accomplishable goals—and then working to make that happen, is, again, just the most satisfying human endeavor I can ever imagine.”
His second favorite part of the job is being able to mentor younger doctors and students.
“We have a variety of medical trials that are open here at the medical school. The focus of each of them is to optimize cancer control while minimizing side effects of treatment. As an example, we participate in a clinical trial looking at conservative surgery for head and neck cancers coupled with radiation therapy, as opposed to more radical surgical management. This allows patients to enjoy a much better quality of life. And we have analogous processes for almost any organ system you can name, so people stay the way that God made them while we take care of their cancer,” Sinesi says.
What makes Sinesi good at what he does?
“I have intense curiosity about humanity. I’m an avid student of humanity, and I’ve always enjoyed science. Medicine is the fusion of humanity and science, for me. So being able to act on the academic areas that have ignited my passion for my whole life and to do it in such a way that I make a positive difference in other people’s lives is exciting to me. I love doing it, and I think that if I’m a good doctor, then that may be part of the mechanism. I also have wonderful role models. My late father was the best kind of doctor that I’ve ever known. He was humanitarian, he was scientific and just had a wonderful heart. He always took good care of people, and it may well be that some of his influence on me is role model, and some may well be genetic.”
As A Pediatric Oncologist, Dr. Eric Jeffrey Lowe Conducts Important Research And Works With A Dedicated Team To Help Children And Young Adults Fight Cancer
By Barrett Baker
Dr. Eric Lowe didn’t decide to go to medical school until very late in his college career. In fact, he graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore with a degree in biomedical engineering. But it was while he was working in the biomedical engineering department at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., that he found his calling.
“The aspect of human physiology always interested me,” Lowe says. “When I was at Children’s National, I was actually able to go in with physicians to surgeries and to see patients once a week as a way to get to know ‘the other side’ of biomedical engineering. That’s when I decided to go to medical school.”
Another factor that greatly influenced his decision to become a pediatric oncologist was working as a camp counselor at two different camps for children with cancer. The first one was outside Mobile, Alabama, and the second was outside of Atlanta when he was attending Emory University’s School of Medicine.
“I had a group of eight boys who were between 15 and 18 years old. I loved being a part of their group because they all had really positive attitudes even though half of them were very ill. There was one time when we had to make a run to the store to pick up stuff for camp, and one of the boys was an above-knee amputee. While we were in line to pay, he unclipped his fake leg, and no one noticed because he was wearing jeans. As the cashier was ringing us up, he pulled his leg out from his jeans and handed it to her saying, ‘Man, stuff in here costs an arm and a leg.’ So we’re all laughing while the poor cashier is [figuratively] having a heart attack. That was the kind of stuff that led me to say, ‘These kids are the ones I want to take care of. These are the children and young adults I want to help.’”
Working at that camp also had another major impact on his life … it’s where he met his future wife, Susan.
Today, Lowe spends his days at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk. After serving his pediatric residency at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas and then a fellowship at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, he wanted to return to the East Coast.
“I grew up in Maryland, and my wife’s family is in western North Carolina. By being here, we’re pretty centrally located to both families. Working at CHKD has given me a really good balance of work and family life,” Lowe says. “I joined CHKD in 2004 because the opportunity offered everything I wanted: a freestanding children’s hospital that was growing; the ability to do research and see patients; and the chance to work with a great group of doctors.”
Lowe sees patients almost every day, even when he’s doing research. Some days are full clinic shifts where he gets to see a lot more patients. On the research side, he is currently the principal investigator for a clinical trial that is being run through the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 131 different hospitals across the U.S. He designed a trial which is testing two novel agents in children and adolescents with a specific type of lymphoma.
In addition, he oversees the more than 70 different clinical trials open locally at CHKD. But for him, the best part of his job is interacting with the patients, their families and the staff at CHKD to provide care for children with cancer.
“The research we are doing is extremely important and is a collaborative effort across the globe,” Lowe says. “We have made amazing strides in survival rates for kids with cancer to the point where we’re almost at an 80 percent overall survival rate. The survival rate for all (acute lymphoblastic leukemia), which is our most common diagnosis, is 85 percent compared to a 2 to 3 percent survival rate back in the mid 1960s, which wasn’t really that long ago.”
Lowe is honored to be designated a Top Doc but recognizes that there are a lot of people who are part of the equation.
“This is an absolute team effort,” he says. “It requires many dedicated professionals to do what we do—some of whom our patients never see. These include my partners, our nursing staff, our social workers, our dietician, our child life specialists, our research office staff, our administrative staff and our chaplains—not to mention all the doctors in other subspecialties which help us provide such excellent care. I love interacting with my patients and being able to use my medical knowledge—what I was trained to do—to help these children. There are some days that are better than others. When you have a patient you’ve treated for 10 weeks and the interval scan shows their cancer is completely gone—that’s a good day. It’s great to say, ‘You still need more therapy, but right now your cancer is gone, and we’re on the right track.’ The harder days are when you have to tell someone their child’s cancer has progressed. That’s not easy, but at the same time I develop trusting relationships with my patients and their families, and they are looking to me for guidance. Even if the chance for survival is slim, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to hope. We just have to work together to determine what we’re going to hope for.”
Concentrating On Blood Diseases And Cancer, Dr. Burton F. Alexander III Sees Much Variety In His Patients—But With Each Of Them He Builds Long-Term Relationships And Gains Educational Opportunities
By Barrett Baker
Dr. Burton (Burt) Alexander III has the unique distinction of keeping all of his medical school training isolated to one school—The University of Virginia. Born and raised in New Kent County, Virginia, Dr. Alexander was originally drawn to becoming a doctor because of the admiration he felt toward his own family doctor.
“I grew up in a small town, and we had one doctor—Dr. Farrah Howard,” Alexander says. “Dr. Howard was the doctor for two or three counties because back in those days we didn’t have doctors everywhere. So he took care of me if I broke my finger; he took care of all my infections as a kid. He knew me, and he knew my family. But he would always take the time to talk to me to see how I was doing. He was just like Superman to me. His work ethic and his passion for people really inspired me, so I wanted to be a doctor like him and help people.”
Indeed, Dr. Howard encouraged young Mr. Alexander to pursue his dreams and even got him his first job in Richmond, working as a janitor at a small hospital so he could start earning money to pay for medical school.
Howard told him, “If you want to go into medicine, I don’t want you to just do it. I want you to know that you’re interested in it, and you need to know that you’re going to do it from the start. You need to see this from the ground up because I don’t want you to be arrogant and think doctors are better than other people.”
Howard told the hospital administrator to rotate Alexander’s duties every few years to give him a unique perspective on how a hospital works and to see if he would really like being a doctor.
Apparently it worked because the future Dr. Alexander applied for early enrollment into the University of Virginia and eventually did his undergraduate, graduate, medical school, internal medicine and fellowships in hematology and oncology (a total of five degrees) there. It was there that he met his next great inspiration, Dr. Charles Hess.
“Dr. Hess was a faculty member at the University of Virginia in the hematology/oncology program. He had just given us a lecture on leukemia, then he brought a patient of his in to talk about the symptoms she was having, how they discovered she had leukemia and how they treated it,” Alexander says. “When I saw the patient/physician bond between them it was amazing to me. So I made Dr. Hess my advisor, and he stayed with me throughout my medical training. I did a lot of extra work with him and got to see the relationships he had with his patients, how much they loved him, how compassionate he was with them. That’s when I decided I wanted to double board in hematology and oncology. I wanted to deal with a specialty that would allow me to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Today Alexander is a physician at Virginia Oncology Associates in Virginia Beach, specializing in blood diseases and cancer.
“There’s so much variety in my job, and that’s very exciting because every day you walk into a different room and you’ve got different problems to deal with,” he says. “Most people probably don’t realize how many different blood problems a person can have—from benign disorders like low white or red blood cell counts to clotting and bleeding disorders to malignancy (cancer) of the blood. I may see someone as young as 18 or as old as 101, so every day provides new challenges.”
One of the things that Alexander enjoys most about his job is that he builds long-term relationships with his patients and their families. He also enjoys the educational opportunities such a diverse field of study covers. He reads in excess of 10 medical journals a month and regularly attends national meetings every year to stay up on the latest options to provide his patients with state-of-the-art treatments.
“That’s one of the things about our group that I love so much,” he says. “The doctors at Virginia Oncology Associates have really stayed up on all of the latest treatments for hematology and oncology disorders so our patients don’t have to be referred somewhere else. We want to have the best care here so that only on rare occasions will our patients need to see someone else.”
For Alexander, the hardest part about being a hematologist/oncologist for nearly 20 years is the emotional drainage that comes from losing patients.
“That is a downside to this profession, but you get stronger,” he says. “I’ve come to realize that you have to accept what you are given, that I am not God but that I work through God to fix what I can.” He also admits that being so dedicated to his patients and his profession has caused him to miss time with his family. “I get up before my wife, and I usually come home pretty late,” he says. “If I’m out to dinner with my family and I get a call or a text, I answer immediately, even if I’m not on call. That’s just my nature. Dr. Hess told me, ‘If you’re a physician, that’s a life calling. You’re not on duty from 9 to 5 like a regular job. You know when you sign up for this you have to be available to your patients.’”