Pulling Back the Curtain: Moshe Mittelman, MD

Moshe Mittelman, MD
Former Chairman of Medicine, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center; Professor of Medicine and Hematology, Tel Aviv University Sackler Medical School; President of the Israel Society of Hematology and Blood Transfusion

In this edition, Moshe Mittelman, MD, describes growing up in a newly established State of Israel, his military service, and how both experiences affected his medical career.

Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?

I was born in 1952, which means I grew up in the first years of the new State of Israel, which was established in 1948. One of my strongest memories of childhood is people coming to the new country from all over the world, most of whom were of modest means or were even living in poverty. I learned that we must understand that what we have is what we have, and we cannot have more than that. Looking back, I think that seeing the people who immigrated to Israel in the early years of statehood was one of the experiences that inspired me to become a doctor – someone who is of service and tries to make my life and the lives of others around me better.

As a boy, I enjoyed school, but I had two personas in elementary school: I was a good student who took his studies seriously but, on the other hand, I was someone who didn’t appreciate discipline too much. My friends and I would skip class to play soccer and do many other things that the teachers were not enthusiastic about. One teacher in particular was very domineering – she eventually became my mother-in-law.

Did your mother-in-law remember you when you met her years later?

She did, because I was one of her best students! She revealed to me that she used to take my notebooks home to show her husband (my future father-in-law). When I met him 25 years later, he said, “I remember your notebooks.” Fortunately, they had a good impression of me, which probably helped me date their daughter.

Walk us through your path to medicine. Where did you complete your medical training?

In high school, I had to choose between pursuing my academic studies or completing the compulsory military service required of Israeli citizens when they turn 18. I was one of the very few who were allowed to postpone military service to first attend medical school. During medical school, I was lucky to have an excellent teacher who roused my interest and love for internal medicine. Then, during my internal medicine residency, I was inspired by my teachers in hematology, and it became clear that hematology was the right path for me. I thought that this is a field which can allow you to see the patient as a whole (not focusing on a single system), as well as space for academic research.

Dr. Mittelman with his grandson, Eli, in 2019.

I realized early in my professional life that hematology combines several aspects of medicine I enjoy: First, it interested me, but it also included tough diseases where one could make an impact on patients’ lives and, as a young doctor, I thought that there was plenty of room for learning more about these diseases to improve patient outcomes. At the time, we did not have much to offer our patients, which is in complete contrast with the long list of excellent medications available today.

So, early after residency, I decided to pursue further training in hematology. Thirty-five years later, I have to say that I am very happy about that decision.

What was your time in the military service like?

I started military service after internship. In Israel, medical school consists of 6 years of medical studies, divided into preclinical and clinical work, followed by 1 year of internship. So, by the time I did my stint in the military, I had completed 7 years of medical training and I was about 26 years old – much older than the average soldier, who usually begins service at age 18. Most soldiers drafted into service are young and looking for direction in life.

It was an excellent experience. I spent 5 years in the Israeli Defense Forces, mostly as an officer in the field Medical Corps, which meant I practiced some community medicine but also served as a psychologist, an old friend, and mentor to the younger soldiers I worked with.

I met young people from all parts of the population, all parts of the country. Living with them 24/7 for weeks, months, and even years changed my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been of service to the people I worked with – not just in caring for their health, but in counseling them about getting along with other people and facing unexpected struggles.

It is impossible not to benefit from such an experience. Serving as a medical officer helped me better understand people and be aware of their needs. Obviously, it couldn’t take the place of learning medicine, but it was invaluable in teaching me how to deal with people.

You were a mentor for young soldiers during your military service, but who played that role in your medical career?

Several people helped to shape my professional personality, behavior, and career. A teacher in medical school, Talma Rosenthal, MD, was an excellent clinician and teacher who made me fall in love with internal medicine. She stressed the importance of seeing the whole patient – not just one system or one organ.

My commander in the military service, Brigadier General Zion Sapir, taught me about leadership and how to manage people. To this day, much of my philosophy as a director and chief is based on principles I learned from my service. In getting a project done, for example, I learned what it means to clearly define a task, assign everyone a responsibility, and set deadlines.

My chief in internal medicine, Meir Djaldetti, MD, was a wonderful person and clinician who pushed me to combine medicine and my academic career. He also encouraged me to pursue hematology.

Serving as a medical officer [in the military] helped me better understand people and be aware of their needs.

When I finished my residency in internal medicine and moved to the U.S. for a combined program at the George Washington University (GWU) Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, two people stood out as excellent mentors: Larry (Lawrence) Lessin, MD, the Chief of Hematology at GWU, and Geraldine Schechter, MD, from the Washington DC Veterans Administration Medical Center. Again, they taught me to look at the patient’s whole story.

Throughout my career, I have combined clinical work and research, and I learned how to conduct research and ask the right questions from Alan Schechter, MD, at the NIH and the late Nechama Haran-Ghera, PhD, at the Weizmann Institute of Research, Israel.

I will always remember once, when one of my papers had been accepted by a journal, I excitedly told Alan. He asked which journal it was, then, when I answered, he said, “Well, I’d like to publish my paper in a journal with more people interested in it.” That was his gentle way of saying, “You should be more confident in your work.”

When you work with younger doctors today, what advice do you pass on to them?

My mentors taught me many things, but the first in my mind is that, as a clinician, always try to put yourself in the patient’s position. Ask yourself, If I were the patient, how would I want to hear this information? What information is the most important to me?

It is essential to have a personal connection with the work you’re doing. When I’m doing research, I ask myself, How will this work eventually make patients’ lives better? Will it prolong their lives? Is it going to improve their quality of life? Will it help cure their disease? How will it make things better? This is what drives me and sustains me as I work through frustrations and failures – which occur often in academic research.

Tell us about your life outside of medicine. Were you and your wife childhood sweethearts?

We met for the first time as students in elementary school, and then, for many years, I didn’t see her. About 25 years later, I met Edith again by chance, and the rest is history. We have been married for 42 happy years. Edith, who is a social worker, and I have three children and five grandsons. We’re still waiting for the first granddaughter!

When I think about people who have had a big impact on my personality and career, I cannot ignore the enormous contribution of my family, especially Edith. They taught me a very important lesson about how to balance my career and my life outside of medicine.

What do you enjoy doing when you get the chance to spend time together?

Our family loves sports, and one of our favorite things to do together is watch soccer matches, even traveling outside of the country to see games.

A few months ago, before COVID-19 travel restrictions went into effect, I went with my son and two sons-in-law to London to watch a match. We’ve also been to Madrid, Barcelona, and Rome together. Now, of course, it’s much more difficult to travel because of the pandemic, but before that, every year we tried to schedule two or three trips to combine watching soccer and watching musicals or attending a concert. It’s always a wonderful experience together.

Did any of your children go into medicine?

No, none of them wanted to work in medicine, and we wondered whether it was because they didn’t see good examples at home or if they simply fell in love with other things. My daughters are in the technology field and my son is a television journalist. I always felt that they should do what they love. They are all happy in what they do, so it’s fine by me.

Dr. Mittelman with his sons and sons-in-law at a soccer match in London.
Dr. Mittelman dining with his wife, Edith.
Dr. Mittelman with colleagues.