Destiny and Determination: Becoming a World-Renowned Genetic Disease Expert

While Hadassah has quite a few doctors that are leaders in their chosen specialities, there is none quite like world-renowned expert Dr. Polina Stepensky. A trained nurse before becoming a doctor, Dr. Stepensky is a graduate of the Hadassah–Hebrew University School of Medicine. She is the director of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Department of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immunotherapy for Adults and Children, and has identified previously unknown genetic mutations that cause various immunological deficiencies in children and threaten their lives. Dr. Stepensky is the world's foremost expert on the very rare children's disease osteopetrosis. With a cure rate of over 90 percent, she treats children worldwide and was awarded prestigious European Union research grants--including one for a trilateral collaboration of Israeli, German, and Palestinian researchers to work on congenital diseases of the immune system. Dr. Stepensky has co-authored 80 articles that have appeared in professional journals, many of which present world-firsts — whether it is identifying unknown genetic mutations, describing the mechanism through which the defective cell causes particular diseases, or revealing how she cured a child with a specific genetic disease.

About the Episode

Polina Stepensky's path to becoming a world-renowned physician took a circuitous route. She grew up in Ukraine and had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but once she was ready to start her studies, she was told only geniuses get into medical school. She instead went to school to become a registered nurse and went to work at Hadassah Hospital's pediatric intensive care unit. After several years of working with patients, she decided to not let the detractors determine her destiny. She enrolled in Hebrew University Medical School — and graduated cum laude.

"As a nurse, I was very close to my patients because it is 24/7 with the night shifts and we have a lot of time to speak with patients and to speak with families," she said. "I think it's a very good emotional experience to be a nurse, and now to see how to work as a physician through the eyes of a nurse."

In her new career as a doctor, she has certainly made her mark. Dr. Stepensky is the Director of the Department of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immunotherapy at Hadassah Hospital. She is renowned in scientific circles around the globe for her expertise in genetic diseases. She is one of the world’s leading experts on osteopetrosis, and patients travel from all over — the United States, England, France — just to be treated by her. She's received a lot of media attention for her work saving the lives of dozens of Russian children who suffer from the rare disease which can cause blindness, deafness and eventually death. Her department at Hadassah has a 100% survival rate.

During her 25-year career at Hadassah, she and her colleagues have performed more than 4,000 transplants. Her phone is full of photos of patients she has helped. "They are like my children," she said.

Up next for the tireless doctor is building up the gene editing facilities at Hadassah. The new technology will allow Dr. Stepensky to create genetically modified T-cells that are personalized to attack cancer for individual patients. "It is the future," she explained.

Becoming a doctor may have taken her a few extra steps, but she said the journey was worth it. "My target was to help people, to do science, to learn more, to understand different diseases. It was my purpose. It was not easy all the time, but it was also not so difficult because I knew that I have to work hard, I have to learn, I have to do what I'm supposed to do and to do it by best way that I am able to do."

Further learning

Video: Dr. Polina Stepensky saves the lives of Russian children
Russian children travel to Hadassah to be treated for a rare disease
September 19th is World Marrow Day

Read a transcript of this episode.

“Hadassah On Call: New Frontiers in Medicine” is a production of Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America. Hadassah enhances the health of people around the world through medical education, care and research innovations at the Hadassah Medical Organization. For more information on the latest advances in medicine please head over to hadassah.org.

Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your favorite podcast app. If you haven't already, please leave us a review on the iTunes store. It only takes a minute and when you do it helps others discover "Hadassah on Call."

The show is hosted by Benyamin Cohen and edited by Skyler Inman and the team at the Hadassah offices in both New York and Israel.

This episode includes a promotion for:

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This podcast offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of Jews and Arabs in Israel forging meaningful relationships. Presented by Hadassah and hosted by Dina Kraft, “The Branch” shines a light on the stories of people living the example of a shared society. Together. Even though it’s complicated. hadassah.org/thebranch

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