I was honored to spend two riveting hours with
Dr. Samuel Sultan (“Sam”), an abdominal transplant surgeon on staff at New York Presbyterian
Hospital-New York Weill Cornell Medical Center
(“Weill Cornell”). Here is Sam’s story, including insights into the man who chose this challenging specialty.
Sam was born in West Orange, NJ in 1982, to Andrea Shulman and Ronnie Sultan. Ronnie’s family came from Aleppo, Syria in the early 1900s. Andrea grew up in Bayonne, NJ. In addition to caring for her family, Andrea managed her husband’s office practice. Andrea’s mother was a teacher and her father a doctor. Sam’s parents came from large families and Sam is one of eight children.
Sam studied at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (elementary school) and attended Yeshivat Frisch for high school. Yes, Sam does know Jared Kushner, and his sister Nicole (Jared was a year ahead of Sam, and Nicole was a year behind).
After Frisch, Sam learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, and then studied at Columbia University. Sam’s deep interest in Jewish studies led him to transfer to YU after his freshman year. He graduated with a BA in chemistry in 2005. Sam then entered NYU Medical School, and completed a six-year residency at
Weill-Cornell in general surgery, followed by a two-year fellowship in abdominal transplant surgery at University of Maryland Medical Center (Maryland).
Sam first considered becoming a doctor early on in high school. Sam calls it a “natural thing.” His older siblings were already on that track. His father is a general surgeon, and his maternal grandfather, Irving Shulman, was an urologist. Sam also had aunts and uncles in medicine. The summer after Sam’s year at Columbia, he volunteered in Israel with Magen David Adom. That clinched it for Sam – he was seriously exposed to medicine with MDA and discovered that he loved it!
For Sam, following in his family’s footsteps was not a given. He is very clear about his passion, excitement, and genuine love of medicine, independent of his family members. Sam shared, “I find transplant surgery fascinating and love medicine in general.”
Sam’s father Ronnie was his role model. “It was always clear how much my dad valued his job and what it meant to him. He was very dedicated to his patients, but he balanced it with family. Family was very important to him…a source of great pride. He loved to spend time with us and go on family trips. He asked us kids to try to be home for Shabbat lunch so we could all be together. He is a humble and religious man, and balanced religion with community. These are the aspects I have tried to emulate.”
Like his father, Sam values family and he views his family life with his wife and children as one of his greatest accomplishments.
He married Jennifer Pick of Newton, MA in 2005 before starting medical school. Sam is very proud of their marriage and their three daughters, aged seven, five, and one and a half. Jennifer has a master’s degree in public policy from NYU and has worked in various capacities for Blue Cross Blue Shield. Sam is thankful for his wife’s support and love during the stressful years of his medical training. His parents and in-laws were, and still are, always there for Sam and his family.
When Sam headed to medical school it was the first time he truly stepped outside of the Jewish world and was fully exposed and challenged to what he calls “a much broader non-Jewish world.” There were approximately 160 other medical students in his year, including only four orthodox students. Despite being in the minority, Sam was able to remain steadfast in his religious values. One might say that Sam’s devotion to medicine was not only a family tradition but was also a connection to a religious legacy of Jewish doctors. Medicine is most certainly Sam’s passion and his calling.
Sam describes himself as modest, thoughtful, creative,
hard-working, and compassionate. I learned that he drew upon these attributes to get through his rigorous and stressful training, and they are woven into the care he provides to his patients.
We chatted about Sam’s secret to success. First he notes that the support of his wife and parents was a key to his success. His own qualities, of course, were also essential. Sam is calm by nature, which is especially helpful in the operating theatre. Other traits that make Sam a successful surgeon are his strong focus, patience, perseverance, and his ability to work through things systematically, to see patterns as well as the big picture, and to think outside the box.
Some transplant surgeries have taken Sam two hours and others up to five hours. Using much persistence and focus, Sam crafts his strategy and carefully notes the details needed to successfully transplant the organ.
When asked why he chose surgery, he responded, “It’s cool!” Sam jokes about not being a big talker, but he says he can talk
a lot about transplant surgery, and does become quite animated about it. As a child, Sam loved working with his hands, creating and fixing things, and playing with Legos and puzzles.
What led Sam to a general surgery residence were Sam’s creative and solution-oriented leanings, his father’s example, and NYU Medical School’s being a strong feeder for surgery. Of the many mentors who deeply influenced Sam during his training, Dr. Fabrizio Michelassi, MD, FACS, the Chairman of Surgery and Surgery-in-Chief at Weill Cornell Medical College, stands out. Sam states, “I spent six years with him. He is a very fine person, prides himself on excellence in surgery and going the extra mile, even at that level he is a very humble and humane person.”
Sam chose abdominal transplant surgery which includes the kidney, liver, and pancreas. The pancreas has become one of Sam’s specialties and special interests.
Sam explored other fields, but prefers the different components of transplant surgery, which he calls its “multi-dimensionality.” On one hand, Sam expounds, transplant surgery still involves large scale open surgery, as opposed to laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery. However, it also requires microscopic and
small-scale connecting of blood vessels, and working on small parts and pieces which Sam finds makes for a nice balance. At Maryland, Sam’s training was very intense, and he was exposed to a large number of cases with different complexities.
Sam enjoys that transplant surgery includes “lots of medical care, physiology, and diagnostics, well intermixed with the actual transplant.” He says there is more medical inquiry involved in this field than other types of surgery. For example, Sam assesses why is this patient’s kidney not working? Is this person a good candidate for a transplant?
Other factors that appealed to Sam: “Transplant surgery is fairly cutting edge and as a field it’s still kind of novel, and there is lots of strong research going on… tied to our practice; there is constant evolution.”
The most rewarding aspect of Sam’s career is seeing the dramatic effect a transplant can have on a patient’s life. The patient may have been dealing with a medical issue for years. Sam’s medical training was very positive, inspiring him to teach residents and pass his knowledge along both at the University of Maryland (as an assistant professor in a lecture series) and at his current position at Weill-Cornell.
Sam is modest about his accomplishments and says he is still in the early stages of his career. He has been an attending surgeon at Weill-Cornell for a little over a month. He explains that there isn’t a typical day as a transplant surgeon. There are lots of unexpected dynamics, e.g. some transplants may be more urgent than others. Sam is also working on developing a research program at Weill-Cornell, to determine what qualities are beneficial for a pancreas transplant.
Regarding work life balance, Sam strives to be home to see his children before bedtime whenever possible.
Sam encourages aspiring doctors to gain a real understanding of what they are getting into when they pursue medicine or surgery, such as the intensity of the profession, the time commitment required, the current health care landscape, and the challenging new electronic medical record system and reimbursement policies to be mastered. Sam suggests aspiring doctors talk to doctors who are 10-20 years ahead of them. He cautions against going into medicine to become wealthy. Sam notes, “It’s more about medicine being an incredibly meaningful and rewarding profession versus the money.”
Dr. Samuel Sultan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Ellen can be contacted at email@example.com