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Tricks of the Trade: 4 Decades of Wisdom

Shweta Gupta, MD
Published: Friday, Jun 20, 2014
Dr. Lily Parhad Hussein,

Lily Parhad Hussein, MD

Medical oncology can be a very demanding and taxing field. It presents its own unique challenges and some situations can be very stressful, especially when balancing personal and professional life or patient-doctor relationships. Despite the challenges, there are many successful medical oncologists in practice today. However, relatively few women have successfully practiced in the field for over 4 decades. One such incredible lady and medical oncologist, Lily Parhad Hussein, MD, has been practicing in Chicago, IL, since 1972.

In her family, Dr Hussein is a fifth-generation medical practitioner. She hails from Iraq. Her family’s medical legacy began in the 1880s, when her great-grandfather’s mother, a midwife, trained her son to be a physician. Dr Hussein’s grandfather was later trained as a physician at an American missionary school in Iran, and her father was an alumnus of the School of Medicine at Edinburgh, UK.

Dr Hussein trained at the University of Baghdad Medical School in Iraq, which was established in 1927 and is affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, and graduated in 1964. She immigrated to the United States in 1965, trained in internal medicine at the Cook County Hospital Northwestern Service, participated in a hematology fellowship program at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and later trained at the oncology clinic at UIC.

In the 1960s, there were few formal fellowship programs in medical oncology, and surgeons treated most oncology patients. As new chemotherapeutic agents such as mithramycin, fluorouracil, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, and steroids became available, the separate field of medical oncology became necessary. Dr Hussein was one of the few physicians trained when the field was in its infancy. During her 42 years of practice, she has watched it evolve from lilliputian to colossal, with scientists making great strides to find cures for cancer.

In 1973, Dr Hussein began practicing at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and started the first medical oncology clinic, which was open every Wednesday morning. She ran the clinic by herself, with guidance from her mentor. Today, there are 8 dedicated medical oncologists in this group, including Dr Hussein, and 24 separate weekly oncology clinics in operation that are visited by over 500 patients each week.

Dr Hussein has trained fellows for over 3 decades. Currently she is the senior attending physician in oncology at the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County. She forms the backbone of the department. Not only does she serve as our mentor, but she is also a great cook—cakes being her specialty. Dr Hussein is a mother of 5, and grandmother of 16. Her daughter, a sixth-generation medical practitioner, is also a medical oncologist.

I spoke with Dr Hussein about her journey over the years. We discussed the challenges she faced and how she overcame them, not only surviving in the oncology field, but becoming very successful and well respected along the way.

The responses below include details that she recalled about her experiences over the years. And yes, I have yet to hear Dr Hussein utter the words, “I have not seen such a case before.” She seems to truly have seen it all!

What made you choose medical oncology as your career?

I lost several family members to cancer when I was very young, including my father who had polycythemia that evolved into acute myeloid leukemia and an aunt with breast cancer. While I was doing my internship I lost my other aunt who was also very young (40s) to ovarian cancer. It triggered a kind of frustration in me and, along with it, a challenge. I wanted to understand the field and do something for people with these diseases. So I pursued hematology and subsequently moved to medical oncology. It has been a most gratifying journey so far.

Being from Iraq, did you have to struggle to adjust to the culture in the United States?

It was not tough at all, actually. There were very few foreign medical graduates at that time and we felt very welcome. When I was growing up, Iraq was very liberal. We went biking on the streets and swimming with other children. During medical school, I started track sports for women. Because I was brought up in a liberal environment, it was not difficult to adjust here.

How do you manage stressful situations at work?


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