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In the Beginning
Meet four standout Johns Hopkins physicians who never intended to become doctors.
Photos by Mike Ciesielski
Ziegelstein’s painterly path took a U-turn in college. Here, he poses with a work from that era.
The Convivial Artist
Roy Ziegelstein became a doctor because it rained one day in Boston.
Now the school of medicine’s vice dean for education, Ziegelstein was a devoted art student at Boston University that day in 1980. He’d decided to be a painter at the age of 10, and by 12 he was spending Thursday evenings taking $3 classes with the surrealist master Gene Scarpantoni. Ziegelstein was the only kid in a class of 20. His parents, wanting to give him every opportunity because they hadn’t been able to pursue many of their own, helped him find shows in their Rockland County, New York, area to display his portraits and landscapes.
In high school, Ziegelstein spent a summer at Rhode Island School of Design, and he only considered art schools when applying to college. But when Boston University offered him a full scholarship and he learned that one of its strengths was visual art, he accepted.
At BU, Ziegelstein displayed his work in Shawmut Bank’s huge window in Kenmore Square. He loved creating art but was puzzled by the way his fellow artists cloistered themselves. He’d always thought that artists were supposed to have a “deep understanding” of other people and wondered how that could develop in a lonely garret.
Meeting premed students in the dorm, he was equally puzzled by their similar reclusiveness. “I thought, ‘Doctors need to communicate, to have stuff to talk to patients about, to have sensitivity and compassion and be part of humanity. It should be mandated for people who want to be doctors that they go out and socialize—not isolate themselves,’” he says.
The day it rained, he was walking to class along Commonwealth Avenue. He decided to seek a drier route inside the long College of Liberal Arts building and noticed a poster urging sophomores to apply for early decision to BU’s medical school. He liked the idea: Secure in their futures, premed students could freely pursue a more well-rounded education and lifestyle. So, despite having no background in science, he wrote an application explaining the human connection he wanted to offer medicine. The dean told the artist they would “take a chance” on him.
Not one to do anything halfway, he immersed himself in the sciences and switched his major to biology. He stopped painting. In 1986, he came to Johns Hopkins for internship and residency in internal medicine and then cardiology fellowship training, and he has been here ever since.
As a doctor and a teacher, Ziegelstein practices every bit of the connection that defined him as an artist and appreciates that his journey brought him to the perfect spot. “I love what I do, and I love all the twists and turns,” he says. “It’s hard for me to imagine a better career than this.”
He’s pretty sure he’d never have considered medicine if it hadn’t been raining that day … and if he hadn’t seen that poster.
On the Set with Larry King
Evan Lipson was 5 when he knew his future lay in media. He spent summers at the one-watt AM radio station at camp, did voiceover work in high school and interned for the CBS television affiliate in Washington, D.C., while earning his bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Maryland.
After college, he landed a job as assistant to the senior executive producer of CNN’s Larry King Live. It was 1996—a boom time in the media world, which ricocheted from O.J. Simpson to Monica Lewinsky to Princess Diana. Lipson attended film premiers, hobnobbed at black-tie dinners and rubbed shoulders—sometimes literally—with the likes of Madeleine Albright, Muhammad Ali and the Dalai Lama.
Three years in, an associate producer by then, he woke up one morning on vacation in Tel Aviv and said to himself, “I think I need to be a doctor.”
It was an unexpected but not implausible twist, the blooming of a seed that had been planted at age 13 when he lost his mother to cancer. Lipson resigned from CNN and enrolled in a postbaccalaureate program to fill in his education’s science gaps. “It was just such a sea change,” he says. “One minute I was having dinner with Jack Valenti, and the next minute I was knee-deep in a chemistry book trying to figure out how many electrons helium has.”
Now an oncologist specializing in melanoma and immunotherapy at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, Lipson says he draws heavily on lessons learned observing King in action. The host had a reputation for throwing softballs, but Lipson watched the host’s gentle style encourage subjects to relax and answer questions King hadn’t even asked. Lipson says he borrows the approach to guide his patients toward their own—sometimes difficult—conclusions about their health.
As a resident, Lipson tapped into his media background and recorded patients describing life-affirming choices they made after a cancer diagnosis. Recordings are stored at the Welch Library and at SeizeTheDays.org, the online home of the nonprofit he founded. Lipson likes to think that one day, after cancer is eradicated, this digital archive will remind us of the determined spirit with which patients once fought the disease.
Before Lisa Maragakis was director of the Department of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control, before she went to medical school and became an infectious disease specialist, she was a 6-year-old in a tutu who grew up to be a ballerina.
In her native Dallas, the young Maragakis took ballet lessons and performed with junior companies. At 13, she began attending the New York City Ballet’s intensive summer program at Juilliard, spending days in class and nights as a spectator in Lincoln Center’s “nosebleed” section, forming a vision of the life she could have.
Meanwhile, she excelled academically and was accepted to Stanford University. Instead, she chose to seize the window of time she saw open to her, and she went to study and perform with the San Francisco Ballet. After three years, she joined Ballet West in Salt Lake City, worked her way up to soloist and principal dancer, toured nationally, and earned critical acclaim for lead roles in the likes of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Giselle.
Then something happened. As she looked around the college campuses where the company often performed, her old academic passions stirred. She began taking classes at the University of Utah, became fascinated by science and soon settled on medicine. Applying to medical school, she was drawn to Johns Hopkins for its openness to the nontraditional route she had followed. At 28, she retired from ballet and moved to Baltimore.
One day, the last dress rehearsal before opening night of The Lark Ascending, Maragakis stood waiting to start her solo. The curtain rose, the lights went up and—losing her bearings—she fell over. Three times.
It was a fluke, but what if it happened on opening night? Determined, Maragakis tapped into the technique and skills she’d honed over years of disciplined practice. “I’m well trained; I can do this,” she remembers thinking. And she did.
It’s a lesson she’s carried into medicine—knowing she’s prepared allows her to apply that same combination of calm and mental toughness in stressful or distracting situations. “It becomes a fight between the stories we tell ourselves,” she says. “Is it a disaster or a story of perseverance and endurance to make it work?”
His URL Can’t Be Pinned Down
In sixth grade, Dorry Segev was the kid whose boredom led to mischief, until a wise teacher started arriving two hours early every day so the youngster could pursue the one thing that had caught his interest: computer programming. Segev’s mother was studying for a master’s degree in computer science, and he soon began taking classes alongside her while learning to serve as a system operator for the university’s mainframe. By high school, he was doing freelance software development, an enterprise that paid for his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering, computer science and music.
To balance the “extreme nerdiness” of his majors, Segev began writing musicals, rekindling an interest that had started at age 5 when he’d taken piano lessons and earned his family free meals at restaurants by demonstrating his perfect pitch. He also played piano, wrote music for a pop band and released an album in the early 1990s.
By his senior year at Rice University, he realized that computers were too isolating for him. Medicine—something he’d never considered before—seemed much more team-spirited, so he applied to medical school and enrolled at Johns Hopkins. To nourish his creative side, he learned guitar to play at open mic nights at local bars and hosted sing-alongs in Reed Hall.
After his fellowship and a couple more degrees, Segev dusted off his computer programming skills. Today, he’s a transplant surgeon and director of a 40-member research group that uses advanced statistical methods and large database analysis to study outcomes, disparities and allocation policy in solid organ transplantation.
He’s also a serious dancer. During his residency, Segev began taking lessons and gravitated to the Lindy Hop, a complex, acrobatic style of partner dancing with origins in 1930s Harlem and deep jazz roots. He met his future wife, Sommer Gentry, a mathematics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, at the American Lindy Hop Championships, where the pair earned fifth place four years running. They went on to create Baltimore’s Charm City Swing, one of the largest swing dance communities in the world. They still dance three nights a week and teach classes around the globe.
Recently, they took up waterskiing and soon found themselves with a boat, a slalom course on Baltimore's Bird River and a coach in Florida.
The better you are at an activity, the more fun you have, Segev explains. Whether at work or play, he likes to try things he’s not good at yet, laugh at his incompetence, improve his judgment and learn new skills: “There’s this amazing joy in getting good at something.”
Lipson says he taps into Larry King’s gentle style when dealing with his cancer patients.
Mental toughness is key in ballet—and battling infectious disease, says Maragakis.
The original computer "nerd," Segev's passions now run the gamut—from swing dancing to water skiing.