Pulling Back the Curtain: Steven L. Allen, MD

Associate chief of hematology at the North Shore – LIJ Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine

What was your first job?

Technically, my first job as a teenager was in the medical field – I helped install the first window air conditioner units at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. We only dropped one air conditioner out of the window the whole time! In fact, when I drive by the hospital, I still see window air conditioners that I may have installed, so we must have done a good job!

Was there any other career you could see yourself in besides medicine?

If I had not gone into medicine I think I would have liked to have been a summer camp director. As a boy, I spent eight summers at Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, New York – four as a camper, and then the rest as a counselor and unit supervisor. Those were great summers in one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever been to. I really enjoyed doing that kind of work.

I still go back there every now and then as part of the camp’s alumni association. My brother-in-law was a counselor with me; I actually fixed him up with my sister-in-law.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue medicine as a career?

I was five years old when I told my parents I wanted to be a doctor. And that was that. Whenever I mentioned an alternative, they would set me straight!

Dr. Allen with his family

How did you decide to pursue hematology?

In medical school, I took an elective in pediatric hematology. George Dover, MD, was the fellow on service and he showed me how exciting hematology is. I ultimately decided to pursue adult medicine, but I credit that experience with sparking my interest in hematology.

There wasn’t one moment per se, but my interests evolved over time. Besides hematology, I found many other specialties interesting – infectious diseases, cardiology, pathology, endocrinology – but hematology seemed like the best way to combine all of them. To put it simply, blood is life.

What was the best advice you ever received from mentors or teachers?

Donald Coffey, PhD, whose lab I worked in at Johns Hopkins as a medical student, always encouraged us to have fun and be excited about what we were doing. If it looked like you weren’t having fun, he would tell you to think about doing an alternative project. Pursuing your career in medicine is a long and difficult road, and you spend the majority of your time working towards that goal – so you better be sure you like it and that you have the right motivation.

What I have admired most in the various mentors I have had the opportunity to work with throughout my career is their approach to patients. During medical school, Philip Tumulty, MD, and later during my residency, Jeremiah Barondess, MD, were great examples to follow. Both led weekly teaching rounds where they modeled a wonderful approach to patients. They were able to combine empathy with their keen intellect, analyzing the medical clues available to reach a diagnosis in very challenging cases. Aaron Feder, MD, was an internist at New York Hospital who showed us how to be a caring, devoted physician always doing one’s best for the patient.

In my fellowship at New York Hospital, Ralph Nachman, MD, and Peter Harpel, MD, were both inspiring models who demonstrated how to combine rigorous scientific knowledge with patient care, while Richard Silver, MD, and Morton Coleman, MD, showed us how to combine clinical research in malignant hematology with clinical practice. They were all the classic “triple threats” – experts in teaching, research, and patient care – that we aspired to be ourselves.

What piece of advice would you pass on to medical students or those just getting started in their careers?
For medical students looking for direction and those starting out in their careers as hematologists, I would say that they should realize what a great field hematology is. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, and it presents a multitude of opportunities – from clinical research to laboratory-based research to patient care. Intellectually, you get to play Sherlock Holmes, putting all the clues together to reach often very esoteric diagnoses in all types of challenging cases.

Looking back at your career, what is the weirdest interview question you’ve been asked?

Well, when I was applying to medical school at a certain well-known university in the Northeast, I had a strange interview experience – not just one particular question.

My morning interview that day was with a leading authority in the field in which I had done my undergraduate research project. The man absolutely grilled me on my project. He knew the literature much better than I did, and, when I couldn’t keep up with him, he berated me for it.

Then, after that was finished, he gave me – a 19-year-old who had never been to that city before – a map to find the location of my afternoon interview. Being a New Yorker who had spent years navigating the New York subways, I had no fear of getting lost forever on the MTA, so I managed to find my way to the next interview, which turned out to be the physician’s house in the suburbs.

There were two little kids running around the house screaming and this very exasperated doctor greets me to start the interview. The very first question she asked me was, “If you married a female physician, what would you do to allow her to have a career?” I gave an honest answer – “We’d work things out and find a way” – but at that point, I realized that perhaps I was going to attend a medical school that started with the letter “H,” but it sure wasn’t going to be that one.

Have you ever been tempted to use that high-pressure technique on any candidates you have interviewed?

I don’t take that approach – I’m trying to get a sense of the candidate. The question I have found to be most useful for this purpose is, “Why do you want this?”

In my own life, the answer I gave to that questions helped me win a research scholarship in medical school. During the interview, one of the people asked me, “If you don’t get the scholarship, what do you plan to do?” I told him simply, “Well, if I don’t get the fellowship, I’m still going to do the project in the lab, because that is what I’m interested in doing.” For me, although the funds would have been very helpful, whether or not I got the funding, I was still going to do the research. They awarded me the scholarship, citing my answer to that question as the reason I won.

So, now, that kind of determination is something I look for in a candidate.

What lessons has your work life taught you?

The biggest lesson is, “Don’t take it home with you.” I always try to wrap up all of the issues and patient problems before I go home at night. That way, I’m not worried about it at home and I can sleep at night. Over time, your workload just gets larger and larger; drawing that line between work hours and off-hours helps. Occasionally, I do end up taking work home, but I try my best to not let it encroach on the time I spend talking and relaxing with my family.

In a typical day, what is your rose and what is your thorn?

The best part of my workday is seeing and helping my patients. It’s always good to interact with them, particularly when you get to see people whose lives you’ve had a major impact on.

The thorn comes at the end of the day, when I sit down to scroll through the 200 emails that have accumulated in my inbox. It’s a task that I dread, but the “Delete” button has become very important to me.

What was your childhood like?

My early childhood was in Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. My father was a certified public accountant, my mother was a legal secretary before I came along, and I had two sisters. My earliest memories are of shopping with my mother, during the days when there were still pushcarts on the streets. The world was very different then; she would stop at the live fish store, the deli, the appetizing store, pickle shop, knish stand. We used to go to the ice cream parlor where Murder Incorporated had once hung out.

Later we moved to an area of Queens known as Maspeth. It’s famous for the miles and miles of cemeteries surrounding the area, so, as you’d expect, it was a very quiet neighborhood. But what is really striking about Maspeth is that over 30 kids from my block grew up to be physicians or dentists! Maybe that is what really influenced me to go into medicine. One of my childhood friends, Steve Kleinman, MD, is a prominent blood banker and, amazingly, we once had back-to-back papers with back-to-back editorials published in Blood. How often does that happen?

Growing up then was so different – parents gave their kids much more freedom. From a very young age I was allowed to go on the subways and travel all over the New York area.

What do you do in the off hours outside of work?

Once upon a time I was a skilled outdoorsman and used to go hiking a lot. Now I like to garden around our house – perennial flowers (so I don’t have to constantly replant every year) and edible plants. We have a fig and a persimmon tree, herb garden, strawberry patch and others. I grew up in apartments in New York, so I never had a backyard; now that we do, it’s nice to spread out and dig.

I also like to read, but the problem with reading, of course, is finding the time to actually sit down and read a book. When I take a vacation and get a stretch of days, I always devour a shelf of books over the course of the vacation.

What is one thing people don’t know about you?

It hasn’t been confirmed, but I think I may hold the world record for trips to the New York World’s Fair in the 1960s. I must have gone more than 50 times. If you were under 13, you could get in for 25 cents on Mondays and Fridays, so during the summer and the spring I would go at least twice a week.

What skill would you like to add to your repertoire?

I wish I could sing. I can’t sing on key to save my life – and I never could. When I was a kid, all fifth-graders in the New York public school system took a test to determine who got to take music classes in school. Basically, it tested whether you could keep time, sing, and hear octave changes on the piano. I keep very good time, but I failed the other two parts of the test. That was the end of my musical career.

I can, however, dance now. Before our wedding, my wife (then my fiancée) insisted that we take dance lessons. I failed the course, while she passed with flying colors. I had to retake the course, and – in what I took as a sign of how much she loved me – she took the course over with me. I knew then that it would all work out.

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