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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 23, 2001
HEALTH

A crusader for public health A crusader for public health (May 23, 2001)

Assistant surgeon general hails from Palo Alto

by Daryl Savage

When Susan Blumenthal was 10 years old, she confronted something that would change her life -- a skull and crossbones on the door to her mother's room at Stanford Hospital, where she was receiving radiation treatment for thyroid cancer.

It was at that moment Blumenthal decided to become a doctor.

"I had a tremendous sense of fear and helplessness," Blumenthal said, triggered by that "death's head" image. Ironically, the sign was not intended to represent death, but hope from life-sustaining radiation treatment.

When her mother got cancer a second time 10 years later, Blumenthal's conviction was further strengthened. "I saw her suffer. I didn't want anyone to suffer the way she did, and I vowed I would do everything possible to keep that from happening to other women."

Today, Dr. Susan Blumenthal is the U.S. Assistant Surgeon General, a holdover from her appointment during the Clinton administration. Her official government rank is Rear Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. With that title goes an official Navy black uniform, which provides a striking contrast to her cascading blonde hair.

Blumenthal is a fighter. "I am on duty 24 hours a day fighting our national enemies -- diseases like heart disease, cancer and AIDS," she said. Her arsenal of weapons includes antibiotics, vaccinations and education.

Although she focuses on a broad range of public health issues, she has helped put women's health on the forefront of the country's health care agenda. It wasn't easy. "The health profession was dominated by men for so long," Blumenthal said, adding that most of the medicine used by women today was tested on men.

Blumenthal, who grew up in south Palo Alto, remembers the community as a sleepy, bucolic town with orange groves, cows and roosters. But she also recalls growing up in the shadows of giants like Hewlett Packard, Lockheed and Stanford, and considers this area the catalyst of her awareness of technology and medicine.

When Blumenthal was in high school in Palo Alto, her summer vacations were spent at Stanford Hospital, working in the department of pediatric neurology. She also spent time in Stanford's news department.

It was there she learned the importance of merging communication with medicine, and her interest in public health began. "I want to underscore the significance of Stanford. I grew up thinking about technology and health. I credit Stanford for my success and for my commitment to public health," said Blumenthal, who served her internship and residency at Stanford Hospital.

Blumenthal's interest in communication, medicine and technology was bolstered in 1994. During the Gulf War she had an idea: If the United States could build satellites to detect missile silos or tanks that were miles away, Blumenthal wondered why that same technology couldn't be used to detect tumors in women's breasts.

"'Missile and Target Recognition Technology' is when you look in a large area for something that's very small," she said. After getting 60 scientists together to discuss this idea for a "cross pollination" between satellite imaging and medicine, the proposed technological application was given the go-ahead for research. The project recently finished some of its clinical trials for breast cancer detection.

It is aptly named "From Missiles to Mammograms." Blumenthal says, "This emerging technology has produced software that is currently available in some hospitals, but the methods and software are continuing to be refined."

Blumenthal looks to another Palo Altan as her mentor. She calls Dr. Philip Lee, whose family is the founder of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, the "Father of Public Health."

She worked for Lee when he was assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He served in both the Carter and Clinton administrations.

"Dr. Lee is an integrative thinker who inspires creativity," Blumenthal said. For his part, Lee regards Blumenthal as a key figure in putting women's health issues on the map.

"I saw something special in Susan," he said.

E-mail Daryl Savage at dsavage@paweekly.com


 

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