Melissa George, D.O.
When Dr. Melissa George (Smola) ’00 talks about her chosen field, she admits, “When most people think of a pathologist, they think of dead bodies.” But George’s work as medical director, Transfusion Medicine and Apheresis at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, PA is all about life.
After graduating from Immaculata with a B.A. in biology/chemistry and a minor in theology, George attended the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, then completed four years of a pathology residency and two years of a fellowship in hematology and blood banking at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
“I became fascinated with blood pathology,” said George, and when she describes that fascination, she speaks with the sensibilities of a scientist and a poet. “Even the worst disease,” she noted, “is beautiful under the microscope.”
But George does not spend her days peering into a microscope. “As a pathologist you’re either interpreting slides or pathology reports, but what makes it so different [for me] is that I see patients. I’m responsible for all transfusions, and I’m responsible for the health and safety of those donors.”
In fact, George is responsible for the blood bank/transfusion service of a 500+ bed hospital, two blood donor centers, and a complex apheresis program treating neurological, hematologic, and transplant patients by the removal and replacement of various blood components, and the collection of cells for bone marrow transplants. As an assistant professor, she spends “about 25 percent of an average work week teaching,” both informally through daily interactions with residents, and also by giving lectures. George oversees about 29 people, but the number of patients she sees in a day varies.
“With therapeutic apheresis, each procedure can take anywhere from one and a half to six hours. A busy day may mean six patients, but each one is time consuming.”
George knew she wanted to be a physician “from the time I was about 9 years old.” Having grandparents with health problems meant that she “spent a lot of time in hospitals seeing people performing these small miracles every day, and I wanted to be a part of that.
“Most people go into it to become a surgeon,” said George. “Then you realize that you want a life. And I had a really influential pathology professor in med school, a true gentleman scholar with just an air of confidence and knowledge, and he referred to the pathologist as ‘the physician’s physician,’ guiding them to make decisions about treatment for their patients. And I see more and more women going into pathology.”
George also credits Immaculata with having a far-reaching impact on her life. “Dr. Mary Dugan, now deceased, was a great chemistry teacher with such a love for the field. I still think about her often. Sister Ann Immaculata was another great biochemistry and organic chemistry teacher. The honors program was very significant, and with my theology minor, it was nice to experience something outside of science. Sister Sheila in theology was a ray of sunshine.
“One of the best things about Immaculata, because it is a smaller school, there were lots of leadership opportunities.” George was involved in clubs, the literary magazine, and also was an R.A. “That prepares you to deal with difficult situations and you become accustomed to making decisions, and that’s the reality of the workplace wherever you are.”
An episode that stands out for George is when she “shadowed” a surgeon, Dr. Edith Delmar Behr ’81, herself an Immaculata graduate. “She was very generous with her time and it made a tremendous impression on me. Now I have students shadow me and I know if people like that hadn’t been generous with their time, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Where she is today includes marriage to her pediatrician husband, Joe. “With any field in medicine, finding that work/home balance is a struggle,” said George. She refers to “a mentality of postponement,” when milestones such as buying homes and settling down get delayed because of the demands of medical school and residencies.
But she is quick to add that she and her husband have been lovingly supported and encouraged. “My husband and I both have great families,” said George. “And you can’t succeed without that strong support network, just having someone to call and see how you’re doing. My mom used to send me home-cooked food and my dad made sure that my car was in good running order. It’s those things that make life bearable when you’re going through a tough time.”
Another thing that makes the sacrifices worthwhile is when the results of one’s work are dramatically tangible. “We had a patient, a young woman with chronic myelogenous leukemia. She was pregnant and you can’t administer chemo during pregnancy. But, through apheresis, we kept the white blood cells low enough to get her safely through the pregnancy. I just saw the baby, a beautiful baby girl. To be able to see that…to be making that difference.”
For George, it makes all the difference in the world.