I Can Help Them Get Through This
Fri, 06/22/2007
Special To The Jewish Week

Nella Shapiro’s waiting room feels more like a living room than an antiseptic medical office. European vintage posters, lush plants and colorful sofas fill the room, and the breast surgeon is often up front, greeting patients by name. One day last week, a woman who had surgery about six years ago insisted on coming in with a friend who is now a patient, just to say hello to the doctor.

"You saved my life," she reminds the doctor, who then asks about the woman’s grandson.

Named "Doctor of the Year" by the Bronx region of the American Cancer Society last year, Shapiro is director of breast surgery at the Eastchester Center for Cancer Care. She is assistant clinical professor in the combined departments of surgery at the Jack D. Weiler Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Montefiore Hospital and Medical Center.

"I like to deal with patients. I like to deal with women. I like to talk to people," she says about her practice. "I feel that I can help them get through this."

She prefers to maintain her office across the street from her partners in the modern building that houses the Eastchester Center for Cancer Care, with its state-of-the-art oncology services. Not all of the people she sees are cancer patients, and she wants them to feel comfortable. She shares her suite with two plastic surgeons, who she often recommends to her patients for reconstructive deep flap surgery.

The young women who staff the office are local residents, born in the quiet neighborhood of one- and two-family houses, with well-tended gardens. This corner of New York — Eastchester Road, just off of Pelham Parkway — feels far from the city’s inner core. Dr. Shapiro’s patients come from all over the Bronx and beyond; she sees a lot of nurses from the nearby hospitals, Italian-Americans from the neighborhood and Jews from Riverdale, along with Albanians, Latin Americans, African-Americans and others.

Shapiro wears neither a white coat nor scrubs in the office when she is seeing patients (unless she is doing a procedure); she dresses in full color and style, and is known for wearing jewelry in the operating room. With an easygoing manner and an aura of warmth, she likes to laugh. In an interview in her office — during which she shuffles between our conversation and the examining rooms where she sees patients, returning with X-rays to read on the lightbox mounted on her wall — she explains that it’s important to her that everyone who passes through her office is treated with care and kindness every step of the way. No one who calls is put on hold.

A graduate of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Shapiro, 59, has been practicing in the Bronx for more than 35 years. She interned and did her residency at Montefiore Hospital Medical Center, where she was the first woman to complete the general surgery residency. For the past 14 years has been in private practice. Her partners are radiation oncologists and medical oncologists.

In the last five or six years her work has become more scientific, as she’s had to learn a lot of genetics and molecular biology. She explains that different populations generally have different types of cancer, and different people have different patterns of tumors.

"Diagnosis of cancer has become more specific, as has the treatment. The surgery is more straightforward. I find it interesting to learn about the whole thing and to be able to discuss it with my colleagues."

She speaks of a better imaging being developed in the next decade that will further help doctors to be more specific in their diagnosis and treatment.

When asked about a New York Times article the previous day that referred to the incidence of breast cancer as the "cruel randomness of fate," she says, "We may find out that fate is genetic. It’s not exactly random. It’s your particular genes reacting with your particular environment, what you eat, how you exercise. There’s a pattern to the randomness."

Shapiro has known that she wanted to become a doctor since she was 12 years old, with no wavering. She recalls the moment she made her decision: She was in the car, returning from a family get-together, and her grandmother wasn’t feeling well. The older woman told her that she had pain her gums. By the time they got home, her grandmother was sweating and when the doctor arrived at their house, he announced that she’d had a heart attack; he also said that gum pain is a sign of heart disease.

"I thought, this doctor knows so much," she recalls, and then felt great responsibility to be the one in her family who knew about such things, since no one else did. "I have to be a doctor," she thought.

She grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, and attended local public schools until high school, when she and two junior high school classmates were accepted into Bronx High School of Science, and traveled the 90-minute subway route together (today, one of those boys is a doctor and the other a professor of physics). She then went to Barnard at age 16 and her class of 600 included 25 women who were premed. All but one got into medical school. She remembers one interview in 1967 where the professor asked, "Why should I take you? I could save another boy from going to Vietnam."

"I couldn’t possibly answer that question," she recalls, but pointed out her grades and her interests and assured him that she’d be a good doctor. Along the way, she had to assure others she encountered, including her parents and the doctors involved in her training that she wasn’t going to get married and leave medicine. Her entering class at Einstein, in the fall of 1968, included 11 women out of 125 students. Now, she says, most medical students are women and immigrants.

As she finished medical school, she was drawn to surgery, finding her experience in the operating room fascinating. She was inspired by a kind, older surgeon who included her in his cases.

"I always enjoyed working with my hands, and liked that you could figure out what a problem was and fix it," she says.

Many tried to discourage her, but they weren’t successful.

"In those days a woman had to be better to be an equal. A man was equal until proven to be bad. It was very unfair. It toughened me up," she says.

"Even when I finished, one of the doctors said, ‘I’d take you into my practice, but you won’t get any cases. Men won’t send you cases.’ I was so shocked. And this was from a doctor who was encouraging."

Her first job was on the staff of North Central Bronx Hospital, the first year it opened, and she later moved to Jacoby Hospital with one of her mentors, where she spent 11 years. She married in 1977 and had two children while at Jacoby, working long hours but arranging her schedule so she could attend most of her kids’ ball games and performances.

In her own practice, she works eight- to 10-hour days, and "the work is very involving," as she spends a lot of time talking to family members. Her kids are now grown up, and she tries to do her work on weekdays, so she can spend weekends with her husband.

"Having other interests makes you a better doctor. I never wanted to do only work."

On her office wall is an antique poster featuring a beautiful young woman from Gilbert & Sullivan’s "Patience." Those of her patients who don’t know opera might think it’s about them, but for Shapiro, it serves as a souvenir of an opera she loves and "to remind me to be patient."