Dr. Kassas responds to recent award as “Rural Health Practitioner of the Year”

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Kassas reflects and gives praise to others

By Dr. Zahi Kassas

It is a great honor being awarded the 2022 Dr. Gary Ogden Rural Health Practitioner of the year award through the New York State Association for Rural Health. Unfortunately, I was not able to accept the award during the live celebration last Thursday. Equally humbling, were all the flattering messages I have received privately and via social media.

Now that your publication became the Mecca to all news seeker in the community, I thought of replying to all well-wishers through your successful platform.

Let me start by saying that I am usually uneasy when it comes to recognition and awards. I have never performed a new surgical procedure and have no diseases that carry my name. More so, while practicing medicine, physicians make mistakes. Dr Coch once told me, you can treat 2 patients with the exact same symptoms with the same medication. Usually, one patient gets better and looks at you like the best doctor in the world, and the other patient gets worse and looks at you as the worse doctor ever. Medicine is the Art of learning from one’s own mistakes and on that journey, some patients get misdiagnosed, diagnosed late, and sometimes undiagnosed and so does the suffering. This is unfortunately the only way we grow to become better providers. During the busy days and nights, we often oversee important lab results, delaying treatments and often our egos stand as an obstacle to a diagnosis that is looking at us straight in the eyes.  How are we to accept awards and recognitions when in fact, we live ashamed and haunted by the memories of the patients we were not able to help? Awards: as honoring as they are, they are also reminders of our failures for we can never turn our backs to patients we failed.

There will be no truth to my words if I don’t start by thanking my wife Rayana whose love guided me all along. Without her patience, sacrifices, and support I could not be the doctor I wanted to be. She always reminded me of the rewarding nature of my job that often took over my duties as a husband and a father. I can’t accept much credit to how Ramsey and Ryan grew to become the bright boys that they are for I rarely spent time with them as children. They too were very patient with their dad. The time I did not spend with them as kids, the missed games, and recitals, and not showing up at home every night by 7:30 pm as I promised Rayana over and over, remain my biggest life regrets. I hope Rayana forgives me one day and my boys become better fathers then their dad was.

Professionally, I always thought I was the luckiest doctor on earth. I loved what a small town offered me. It always felt to me like practicing medicine in the 19th century. I always told new recruits that the nostalgia of medicine is always best felt in Wellsville. Knowing my patients by name, their parents, and grandparents. Most recently carrying for the babies of the patients I cared for as infants, the house calls, the phone calls, the casual meetings on the road and grocery stores and the hundred invitations to graduation ceremonies and weddings.  I often feel like being the other parent, or more accurately now: the other grandparent.

There are some colleagues of mine who shaped me into who I am, and I would like to share with them this award.

Monica Acomb, PNP. Monica’s nursing background taught me the compassion, hard work and attention to details. We like to think of each other’s as partners, but in reality, she is my best friend. We leaned on each other’s all the time. She always looked over my shoulders, and I did the same. Discussing patients together late at night will always be the most memorable time of my career. Monica has an impeccable clinical sense. She quickly became the diagnostician to the challenging conditions. Monica deserves more credit than I do.

Dr LuAnn Kaye has been my savior so many times. She is my professional soulmate and has been always at my side at the hospital and always one phone call away when I need help. LuAnn is a very modest person who avoids recognition and gratitude. I will probably be in trouble for mentioning her. So many nights we spent side by side stabilizing sick newborns, discussing treatment options, and asking her to perform procedures when my hands were full. How could I survive without her? On record, I would be the doctor, but in reality, it would be all Dr Kaye’s hard work. So many evenings and nights she drove breaking every traffic rule to my rescue. For all your hard work LuAnn, and sacrifices Greg, Lydia and Fletcher, I owe you.

Mrs. Jessica Strassner, neonatologist and PNP had an immense influence in making me more confident taking care of the sick newborns. She continues to share the burden in our workload despite her full-time work at the University of Rochester. We hope she would soon join us in Wellsville permanently. Dr Nishit Shah deserves similar credit as well. His presence and Dr Shachi had successfully stabilized pediatric care in the area. I could not have asked for more skilled and compassionate partners at my side.

I am often not an easy person to work with. Mrs. Laura Knapp, the pediatric manager at the JMH practices and prior to that my office managers for many years, was instrumental in allowing me to practice as safe as possible. She took care of all the office flow and made it possible for me to focus at seeing patients while she carried the heavy load of running a busy practice day after day. Like Monica, Laura always pushed me to be a better person. She told me the truth no matter how hard it was. My office nurses and staff: Stacy Ordway, Melissa Walsh, Kelly Matteson, and Katelyn Syska are the hardest working people I have ever met. They are often at the forefront of patient care. My demanding schedule is often too confusing. Juggling the patient schedule when I get called to the hospital, balancing who needs to be seen and often having to give the unwelcome news to the parents that their appointments were cancelled is not an easy job. I feel lucky for having the most understanding patients.  I would also like to thank past co-workers who left their mark as well: Miss Kate Martelle, Ms. Joyce Derx, Stacy Stuck, LPN and Mrs. Carrie Merrick.

On a promising note, the leadership at JMH has been onto something over the last few years. Mrs. benedict and Mr. Helms are making it more possible for us and the younger generation of doctors to stay and practice in Wellsville. New services and improvements are being implemented and we could not ask for better cooperation between medical staff and hospital administration.

It is often a challenge to survive practicing rural health. There are very few of us around and we don’t enjoy the support urban doctors do. There is often no end to the phone calls, hospital duties and long sleepless nights followed by long working hours. After 24 years in the community, I concluded that balancing work, sleep, and family time can never be achieved and wish patients sometimes understand this when their appointments get reschedule. All the colleagues I work along are hardworking providers and I am privileged to work alongside them. We often lean on each other, and for that reason the credit is usually shared among several providers at any time.

Dr Kaye and I were guided by luminaries who set the example for us many years ago. Drs. F.C. Miller and William Coch were and remain our role models and mentors. I would like to think that this award is theirs as well. For I am only but a reflection to what they have achieved and taught me.

I would like to conclude this long letter by thanking my patients for sharing their gratitude and stories with me. To NYSARH and Ardent solutions, I thank you for your trust in me and hope to continue giving my best. 

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