An immigrant touch

Having rehabilitated her own career, Kathy Poodiack now provides education and complementary care to women with cancer.

Kathy Poodiack knew that making aliya would mean giving things up - her home and community in Atlanta, her financial security, and her career as a physician's assistant (PA) specializing in oncology. Yet in 2002, as the violence of the second intifada raged on television screens throughout the world, Poodiack announced to her husband that they were leaving Atlanta and moving to Israel. Within six months, they had sold their comfortable suburban home, packed up their belongings, said good-bye to friends and family and boarded a plane to Israel. Neither had jobs lined up. Neither spoke more than the most rudimentary Hebrew. The Poodiacks quickly found a new community - one in which they see red-tiled roofs, fresh air, welcoming neighbors and biblical roots. They enrolled in ulpan and sent their sons to local yeshivot. After a few months, Kathy set about finding a job. As a PA in the United States, Poodiack was licensed to diagnose illness, treat patients and prescribe medication. In Israel, however, PA licenses are not recognized, and practitioners must re-invent themselves in order to find work. According to Dr. Eric Karsenty, the Jewish Agency's liaison to the Health Ministry, "The case of the PAs is a sad one… their possibilities of making a 're-conversion' into another branch of medical sciences are almost nil." Poodiack contacted Professor Tamar Peretz, the head of Hadassah-University Medical Center's Sharett Institute of Oncology, and presented her case: she was experienced, she was passionate and she needed a job. Peretz found her a position as a coordinator of clinical trials at the hospital, liaising between patients and their physicians and helping patients navigate the bureaucratic and logistical maze of insurance forms, permission letters and scheduling. She was grateful for the work, and happy that she could help patients, but soon became frustrated. "It was very limiting," she says. "I couldn't treat or examine [the patients]. That human side was missing. Most of my work was done over the phone." Poodiack decided that "rather than being frustrated, I should do something about it." And she knew exactly what that "something" would be. "I'd always been interested in complementary medicine," she says, "but I was too busy with my career to properly pursue it. This was the perfect time." Poodiack saw an advertisement for a two-day seminar at New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in medical massage for cancer patients and flew back to the US to take the class. Today, Poodiack - who still works part-time at Hadassah - offers a two-part program for women that combines cancer education and information with complementary care such as massage and guided imagery. Her goal, she says, is to empower women so that they can make informed decisions, while helping them to fight cancer-related distress. "Patients need a lot of information," Poodiack says. "They feel very lost and confused; cancer is a whole new world that they don't understand. Many doctors just don't have the time - they are so overwhelmed, so overworked that they simply can't provide the sort of attention that patients need." Emphasizing that she wants women to "get as much as they can out of their conventional treatment," Poodiack says that she does not provide medical advice or refer women to a specific doctor. However, she does discuss the maze of treatment options, medicines, blood testing, CAT scans and MRIs - essentially acting as a tour guide through each patient's personal cancer landscape. When women have been educated about holistic ways of caring for themselves, Poodiack says, they feel calmer, healthier and better able to fight the disease. She is also a proponent of the benefits of medical massage. "People with cancer usually have had traumatic experiences with touch," Poodiack explains. "They've been jabbed with needles and they've gone through radiation and surgery. Massage can be a healing experience in that regard. It provides relaxation without being invasive, or popping a pill." Poodiack stresses that patients should only see massage therapists who are trained to deal with cancer patients. Before massaging a client, she takes a detailed intake and she says that she will not perform a massage if a patient's blood count is too low. According to Chana, a massage patient, Poodiack's strength lies in her "tremendous sympathy, compassion and understanding," as well as the way she relates to patients' individual concerns and needs. "Anxiety is a terrible problem for cancer patients," says Chana, "and sinking someone into a deep state of relaxation is tremendously helpful. [Poodiack] asked questions, and my answers guided what she would and would not do. She offered the greatest relaxation - not only physically, but mentally and emotionally." Tikva (not her real name), whose illness is in remission, visited Poodiack for information. "She's a warm, wonderful, loving person," she says. "Everyone loves her. When I was in treatment I tried to call my doctor, but it was so hard to get a response. [Poodiack] sat with me, explained the things I was confused about, and helped me to relax. Every cancer survivor, underneath everything, has a deep fear. If you know more and understand more, you can deal with the fear so that it doesn't debilitate you." Poodiack is no personal stranger to cancer. Her middle son was born with a spinal cord tumor; doctors originally gave him six months to live. "He'll be 22 next month," Poodiack says with a smile. Still, she says, she never forgets what it was like to wait for a test result or to face the possibility of his death. In her career, Poodiack says, she has had to "learn how to build a wall, to be compassionate but not get too involved. "When a patient dies, you can't fall apart because you have 10 people behind you, pulling on you, asking you for help. It's God's will - sitting there crying isn't going to help, you have to turn around and help the others. Also, because I've been through it personally, everything's relative. If you've been through it with one of your kids, someone who walks in off the street doesn't affect you in the same way. I get very sad. I've had patients die in my arms, and it's devastating, but it's not a family member." Yet Poodiack says that it is harder for her to maintain an emotional distance in Israel. "As close as I felt to patients in the United States," Poodiack says, "here, they're family. It gets to me more, and I want to help even more. "Working in oncology is very spiritual," says Poodiack. "When people get diagnosed, any facades or masks that they wore disappear. They're very real, and they are amazingly strong. People always think they'll fall apart - but the truth is, they find incredible reserves of strength, strength they never knew they had."