In the medical world, there is a large gap between the laboratory bench and a patient’s bedside. Medical research does not always translate into improvements in treatment. Doctors must interpret and apply that data for it to have any direct benefit for their patients.
Sterman takes special interest in bridging the gap.
In Sterman’s specializations — critical care, pulmonary disease and internal medicine — efficiency of treatment is of the utmost importance. Patients typically have little time to waste on ineffective therapies.
One of the treatments Sterman takes special interest in is genetic immunotherapy, considered an alternative approach to cancer treatment. Sterman hopes to construct an immunotherapy and chemotherapy regimen after reviewing the results of past pre-clinical trials.
Fast Fact: Before specializing in thoracic oncology, Sterman’s main interest was critical care medicine.
Sterman is experienced in a number of other advanced techniques to treat thoracic malignancies. These techniques include endobronchial brachytherapy, endobronchial stent placement and pleuroscopy. A number of these procedures are performed on mesothelioma patients who visit Sterman for his expertise in treating thoracic malignancies.
Sterman joined the New York University Langone Medical Center in January 2015 as director of the Multidisciplinary Pulmonary Oncology Program. He worked previously for almost 20 years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center.
He received a Clinical Associate Physician Award from the National Institutes of Health and has delivered a number of lectures, including an address at the 2009 International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma.
At this annual convention, where patients, families and caregivers affected by mesothelioma can hear the latest advances and news about their disease, Sterman spoke about screening controversies and the lack of sufficient testing measures.
Sterman graduated from Cornell University Medical College in 1989. In the following years, he completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He received fellowship training in the fields of pulmonary and critical care medicine, interventional bronchoscopy and pleuroscopy and thoracic oncology.
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When the days get long, and the news turns bad – and both happen with regularity in this job – Sterman knows where to find a much-needed emotional lift. He doesn’t have to look very far.
The top drawer on the right side of his desk works every time.
Inside it are the notes of thanks, from the mesothelioma patients and families he has seen and served and touched through the years, heartfelt and handwritten, words that jump off the page with emotion.
They always push him back into the battle – against a disease that keeps beating him down.
“I’ve kept every one of the notes. And if I’m having a bad day, they remind me of why I became a doctor, why I take care of patients with this disease, and why I need to persevere,” he said recently. “The passion for this job comes from the passion and courage I see and hear in these patients.”
In the drawer, there is the letter from June, an older woman with pleural mesothelioma who became a mother hen to several of his other patients who just needed someone to talk to, lean on, commiserate with. Even with her oxygen tank, she was always willing, always filled with energy and enthusiasm, a commitment to winning the fight.
Her note was the last note she wrote from home. A family member took it to the mailbox for her. By the time Sterman received it a few days later, she had passed away.
“Working with this disease can rip your heart out. She was one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever met,” Sterman said. “She wanted to thank me for helping her, although I actually had done very little to prolong her life. But I tried. It was a very powerful message she left me.”
Working with this disease can rip your heart out. She was one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever met. She wanted to thank me for helping her, although I actually had done very little to prolong her life. But I tried. It was a very powerful message she left me.
Sterman was the clinical director of the Thoracic Oncology Gene Therapy Program at Penn Medicine. His specialty is Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. At Penn Medicine, he was, he was the principal investigator for several gene therapy trials aimed at mesothelioma and showing considerable promise.
His long-term goal is finding an eventual cure. For now, it’s baby steps against one of the most aggressive, complex cancers there is. He spends his days seeing patients, directing trials. His evenings are spent documenting results and writing up grants proposals to secure enough funding to move forward.
“It would have been easy a long time ago to find an easier disease to work with, a lot less psychologically trying one than mesothelioma,” he said. “A lot of doctors get this God complex. ‘I’m a cardiac surgeon. I stop the heart, replace a valve and restart it.’ Or, ‘I’m a brain surgeon. I can take out part of the brain, wake up the person, and he’s functional again.’ This disease, on the other hand, beats you more often than not. It gives you a certain humility.”
Sterman was young when his mother died of cancer, turning his head toward medicine. Yet he also remembered things they had talked about, like staying grounded and accepting different cultures. His grandfather had made a living selling apples at a fruit stand. His upbringing was middle class. In college, Sterman majored in European History, shying away from the typical pre-med coursework.
“So many doctors are one-dimensional,” Sterman said. “They can’t even talk about other aspects of life, and I knew then I didn’t want to spend my whole life being one dimensional. I knew I was going to be a physician, and this was my one chance at an education, so why not branch out? I never thought I was anything but normal.”
Sterman is as unpretentious as a physician can be, and that’s no accident. Mesothelioma won’t allow doctors to feel pretentious, because no one doctor has all the answers. It’s one reason he clicks so well with his patients.
This is typically an occupational disease that hits military veterans, the working-class, factory and construction guys who came home every day proud of their jobs, never realizing the asbestos in the workplace eventually would claim their health.
“These are people who worked hard their whole lives. Guys who built the hospitals, put in the duct work, then tried to retire only to get sick, and never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor,” he said. “You’re the average Joe coming to see us, and we’re the average Joe doctors, that’s all we are. You worked your ass off to provide for your family, and we’re going to work our asses off to help find a treatment that’s going to work for you. That’s how we approach it. We’re blue collar, just like the guy sitting across from us. This field keeps you humble.”
So many doctors are one-dimensional. They can’t even talk about other aspects of life, and I knew then I didn’t want to spend my whole life being one dimensional. I knew I was going to be a physician, and this was my one chance at an education, so why not branch out? I never thought I was anything but normal.
At Penn Medicine, Sterman worked for one of the nation’s most respected cancer centers, where mesothelioma patients come from across the country to be part of a clinical trial, to try a new therapy or a novel drug that just might lengthen their lives.
“The danger of the job is that it can be all-consuming,” he said. “People come to us desperate for help. They put all their eggs in our basket, and it makes you want to do everything you possibly can do for them. You owe them the best.”
His family at home – three young children and a wonderful wife – also gets his best. They are his outside interests, his hobby, his time away from the job he loves.
“This disease is bigger than any one of us. What I take satisfaction in is knowing I’m trying to make a difference, that maybe I’m making a difference. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re trying to find them,” he said. “It’s why I come back every day, excited about going to work.”
Sterman was the lead author for a 2011 article about intrapleural gene transfer for malignant pleural mesothelioma and contributed to over 40 other articles, which have been published in journals such as Clinical Chest Medicine and the Annals of Thoracic Surgery.
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