By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Drs. Lisa Smith, Seethal Jacob, Riad Lutfi and Samer Abu Sultaneh all came to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health because they felt a special connection to the place and to the people.
“Riley seems like home since I got here,” said Dr. Lutfi, service line director for the pediatric intensive care unit.
It’s a sentiment shared by many of the team members at Riley, and in honor of National Doctors Day (March 30), we wanted to share the journeys of four physicians who represent the best of Riley.
Dr. Smith, a native of Hawaii, brings a military background to her work as a neurologist at the hospital, having served in the U.S. Army for nearly a decade, including being deployed to Saudi Arabia as a battalion surgeon with an air defense artillery unit.
She had already completed a residency in pediatrics in Hawaii and been a pediatrician for several years while in the military before coming to Riley in 2001 to complete a second residency in neurology.
“I had always wanted to do pediatric neurology, but I wanted to finish my military time,” she said. “I came to Riley because my husband (Peter) is from Indiana and I’d heard good things about neurology here at Riley and good things about the hospital from my military colleagues.”
She interviewed, loved it and was accepted into residency, which she completed in 2004. From there, she needed to fulfill her commitment to the Army, so she was stationed in Germany for three years before returning to Riley for a fellowship in epilepsy in 2007. She has been here ever since.
Her interest in neurology was personal. A mother of two, her first child suffered a seizure as a toddler and was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis, a genetic condition known to cause epilepsy. Dr. Smith was still in medical school at the time, but that exposure to epilepsy eventually led her to Riley.
She and her husband’s second child also was diagnosed with the disease. Both cases were relatively mild and controlled by medication until symptoms disappeared. Now, their oldest is completing a Ph.D. program in linguistics, and the youngest is a first-year medical student at Indiana University.
While there are times when she wants to share her personal story with patients and parents as a means of hope, she knows that her family has been fortunate.
“My kids are lucky. They have a mild case. The patients we see at Riley are very involved – lots of seizures, autism, developmental delays.”
If anything though, she feels her personal experience has helped her understand better what parents are going through when they bring their child to Riley.
“It’s scary, even as a med student, as a neurologist. This is your child. I get it when I give parents that diagnosis. It takes me back to when I got the diagnosis for my kids.”
To decompress from the stresses of medicine and maintain a connection to her Hawaiian roots, Dr. Smith runs a Polynesian dance school in Indianapolis – teaching traditional Hula, Tahitian, Samoan and Maori dance.
“That’s my haven,” she said. “After treating sick kids, I know on Saturdays I’m going to be in Hawaii (if only in her mind), dancing and relaxing.”
Like a lot of physicians, Dr. Jacob found her way back to Riley after first completing her residency and serving as chief resident here. She left to do a fellowship in Pittsburgh with her husband, then both returned to Riley as faculty five years ago. Her husband is Dr. Jason Niehaus, neonatology.
Coming out of fellowship, she said, “You’re like a little fledgling that needs a lot of support to move out of being a trainee into being a full-fledged attending. We really felt like Riley epitomized that supportive environment.”
That was a huge drawing point for both.
“Having been residents at Riley, we already knew what the Riley family was like,” Dr. Jacob said. “We knew what it meant to be a part of the faculty here, as a trainee here, and I think what surprised us when we came back was that there were so many faculty who were still here and wanted to be here because it’s where they felt fulfilled and where they felt they could make a difference.”
Dr. Jacob, who leads Riley’s Pediatric Sickle Cell Program, said medicine was a natural draw for her because her father was a physician.
“He was the first physician in his family, and I was able to grow up seeing him dedicate his life and his time to his patients. He showed me what it meant to be a scientist but at the same time serve others through medicine. He was really my first mentor in medicine.”
In her time at Riley, the Chicago native who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, is most proud of expanding the hospital’s sickle cell program, advocating for patients locally and at the state and national level.
“We’ve really created a multidisciplinary team that focuses not just on their medical care but on the whole person because this is a chronic disease that doesn’t just affect them, it affects their whole family.”
She is passionate about research and incorporates that into her care, helping patients and families understand why research is important and what steps are put in place to ensure that it is safe and equitable and something they can trust.
“Sickle cell patients for so long have been left out of the research world when you think about advancements in medicine and improvements in clinical care,” she said. “There’s been a drive to change that.”
That push has led to a fairly robust sickle cell program that she hopes is “providing patients with the care they want and the care they certainly deserve.”
Dr. Lutfi, a native of Damascus, Syria, misses his home country but has found a second home in Indianapolis. Here, he and his wife, Melissa, a Riley nurse practitioner, are raising their 6-month-old son.
Like many in Syria, he came to the U.S. in search of a better life.
“Each has their own story, but my path was probably straighter,” he said. “My sister was in the U.S., so I had her guidance.”
Dr. Lutfi did his pediatric residency at West Virginia University and his fellowship at Cincinnati Children’s, along with a one-year stint in the NICU in upstate New York, so he had time to familiarize himself with American culture before coming to Riley in 2012.
Still, being 2,000 miles away from Syria is hard at times. And the war there has made it difficult to visit.
“It can be broken at times, but it’s still home,” he said of his birthplace. “I think I have two homes now. Riley seems like home since I came here. It’s where I met my wife and built a family.”
Indianapolis is also home to his parents and many close friends.
On top of the skills he brings as a physician, Dr. Lutfi exudes a deep humility and sense of compassion. He considers himself a lifelong learner, he said, a trait he encourages in the medical students and residents he trains.
“I know there’s too much to learn and every day coming here is not just to deliver care but also to improve myself,” said the PICU service line leader. “But most important is serving people, and kids especially. Not only feeling the joy, but you have to share some sadness with the family during difficult times when medicine cannot fix everything. There is a lot of compassion in this career, especially in peds and especially in pediatric critical care.”
Dr. Lutfi believes it is important to remember that for every win he and his colleagues experience, there is often a loss.
“We should celebrate the win and honor the loss. I think we have a lot more work to do to make things better for the next child.”
The pandemic has halted the international heart mission trips to Jordan that Dr. Mark Turrentine leads, but Dr. Lutfi is eager to join again when travel can resume.
“There are a lot of kids waiting, and we all look forward to going back.”
Like Dr. Lutfi, Dr. Abu Sultaneh came to Riley in 2012. Originally from Jordan, he recently became a U.S. citizen.
After completing his fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, he was looking for a position in a large hospital with the potential to help more kids and guide future medical professionals in their training.
As a pediatric intensivist, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and associate director of the Pediatric Critical Care Fellowship Program, he does both. And as co-leader of the Pediatric Community Outreach Mobile Education initiative, he works to improve the quality of pediatric patient care around the state.
As to why he chose medicine for a career, Dr. Abu Sultaneh said he was always interested in genes during high school and thought that gene therapy would be the way to cure many diseases.
“I love pediatrics, trying to help kids who have many years to live. They are fighters. I like to help the sickest of them to get better and back to their normal lives with their families.”
He has joined Dr. Lutfi and many others on Dr. Turrentine’s heart missions as a way of giving back to his home country of Jordan, and he works with medical students there to navigate the system to come to the United States if that is their goal.
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com