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The Passing of an Icon: Dr. Norman L. Sadowsky

There were very few female doctors when I trained to be a surgeon in Boston in the late 1970’s. I did, however, have several wonderful male role models, who taught me what it meant to be a doctor. Some of these were surgeons, including Bill Silen, then chief of the Department of Surgery at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston; as well as  Clint Kaufman and Leon Goldman.  All three were gentlemen in the true sense of the word: kind to patients, families, and students, and dedicated to sharing their talents and experience with the next generation of surgeons. 

My training as a surgeon included six months as chief resident. Yet, when my training was complete, no one offered me a job. No one felt there was a place for a female surgeon. So I went into private practice in general surgery, and gratefully saw whoever was sent my way.  Key to building a practice in those days was the credibility that you got from referrals from more established doctors in the community. And because I was a woman, the other established doctors often referred women with breast problems to me.

The best mammographer in Boston was Norman Sadowsky, the Chair of the Radiology Department at the Faulkner Hospital, and I sent my patients to him for mammography and other breast imaging.  He was never satisfied with the status quo and often jumped at the chance to try out a new approaches. He respected and paid attention to women and took their complaints and problems seriously.  Unlike many radiologists of his day, Dr. Sadowsky did not stay in the dark reading x-rays. He would come out and meet the woman whose x-rays he had reviewed, chat with them, examine them, and put all his energy into solving their medical problems.  The women that he saw knew that in that moment they were the most important person in the room and that he would not give up until he had sorted out their issue. 

Dr. Sadowsky taught me that treating a patient kindly and with respect was as important as diagnosing their problem.  At the Faulkner Sagoff Breast Imaging and Diagnostic Center he pioneered the practice of providing women with same-day mammography results. At the time, most other centers did not directly give women their results. Instead, they would send the report to the woman’s primary care doctor, who would call them—a process that could take days. Dr. Sadowsky knew it was your body, you were scared, and that you deserved the truth as soon as possible. I copied this approach in my own career, always telling the patient around what time I expected to have their pathology report, so that I could give her control of where and with whom she wanted to be when I called her with her biopsy results.

Dr. Sadowsky was always trying to figure out how to do things better. He developed the Sadowsky Breast Marking System and never hesitated to share his knowledge in papers, lectures, and demonstrations.  Most importantly he was a role model, mentor, and friend. He died this summer at the age of 88.  He will be missed, but his legacy of how to care for patients with respect and kindness, which he taught directly and by example, will live in on.