By Jill Porter
Like many adults, Nancy Young found herself susceptible to the familiar aromas of her childhood home. But for her, it wasn’t the alluring smell of freshly baked cookies or the crisp scent of line-dried laundry. It was the smell of chemicals from the home-based laboratory used by her mother, a pioneering medical pathologist.
And that’s partly the reason Young’s career path led her to the same job as her mother, the same position as her father, at the same hospital where they both worked and where she was born: Einstein Medical Center.
“I did a year of internal medicine before I chose pathology,” Young said. “I’d go to the lab to deliver specimens and it smelled like home and I was very at home in the laboratory.”
Young became the first woman to chair the Department of Pathology and Laboratory at Einstein in 2008 – the same job once held by her father. Her role will expand to include Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, the new hospital scheduled to open in East Norriton in September.
Young’s mother, Geraldine Young, was the first female cytopathologist at Einstein. And she was a rarity during the 1950’s. She was a doctor and the only working mother in the neighborhood, which invited scorn and warnings about her children’s wellbeing from stay-at-home moms. She‘d turned a sewing room in the family’s Elkins Park home into a laboratory, where she examined slides for gynecologists in private practice. She also worked part of the time at Einstein.
“I think probably the biggest influence was the role model of having a working mom,” Nancy Young said. “It’s very difficult for women who sometimes feel guilty no matter what they do. They feel guilty if they work and they feel guilty if they don’t. Having a mom who was successful and who was also a good mom helped me realize that it’s ok. I had a happy childhood, and I wasn’t going to make my own children suffer if I worked. I really respect my mom. ”
Young also has warm childhood memories of her mother’s career. “She had a table with a microscope and I’d sit on her lap while she read the slides. I used to say, ‘Who’s going to read my slides when I get older?’ Obviously these things had an impact on me.” The technicians who delivered specimens to the home-based lab occasionally brought her candy. Sometimes, she’d accompany her mother to Einstein and help file papers. And then there were the dinner table conversations which were “very interesting. There was a lot of medical talk.”
And while pathology may sound like a methodical pursuit with no drama, nothing could be further from the truth, Young said. Pathologists are white-coated detectives who often resolve medical mysteries by examining tissue under the microscope. On her desk at the moment, for instance, is tumor tissue from a 23-year-old patient that needs to be traced to its primary site. “The radiology report isn’t clear where it’s coming from,” Young said. “By looking at cells and doing additional stains, my diagnosis is key in how they treat the patient. “ It’s a “hot case,” she said, and the retinue of clinicians who are treating the patient come by frequently to see what she’s found.
“You’re basically a consultant, a ‘doctor’s doctor’ some people call it,” Young said. “And the type of department I’ve strived to build is one in which pathologists don’t hide behind the microscope but take a very active role in working with clinical colleagues in treating patients and help them decide the best course of action. It’s a very satisfying field in that way.”
Young earned her BA and MD through an accelerated six-year program at Lehigh University and Medical College of Pennsylvania. She interned in internal medicine at the Medical College and completed residencies in anatomic and clinical pathology at Yale New Haven Hospital, where she was also chief resident in clinical pathology.
Young spent 14 years at Fox Chase Cancer Center and was director of Outpatient Laboratory and Autopsy in 2008 when a colleague who knew her parents’ background mentioned there was an opening for a chair of pathology at Einstein. She was an active researcher with many publications to her credit and was vice president of the American Society of Cytopathology at the time. She subsequently became president of the organization.
Still, she said, “I never even considered being a chair.” She pursued the opportunity “on a whim. I thought maybe it would be fun to do something new. I had been doing what I’d been doing as a staff pathologist for 20 years.
“I came in for an interview and that was that,” she said.
Young heads a department which includes 7 pathologists including her, and more than 150 full and part-time employees who work in different divisions of the lab. “We’re a 24-7 operation. We have to run three shifts. It’s a huge laboratory, a large hospital.”
Young lives in Abington with her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Melin, a clinical immunologist and rheumatologist working in drug development for the pharmaceutical industry. They have two daughters and a 15-year-old rescue Dachshund named Chloe.
Their youngest daughter, Julia Melin, is a senior at Swarthmore College. Their oldest, Claire Melin, is in medical school at the University of Rochester – which means there will be three generations of women physicians in the family, a rarity indeed.
The world has changed drastically for women since Geraldine Young was practicing in the 1950’s. Nancy Young recalls legendary stories her mom tells, including difficulties in getting into medical school as a Jewish woman, and discrimination in the workforce. One day, for instance, while Geraldine Young was a resident at Einstein, she had to go to the operating room to collect tissue for a frozen section. “She was pregnant with my brother and the elevator operator wouldn’t let her onto the surgical floor because he didn’t believe she was a doctor.” She solved the problem by bringing along a male technician in a lab coat. The elevator operator assumed he was the physician and she was his assistant.
That bias has gone the way of elevator operators, as Nancy Young can well attest.