SIUH PEDIATRIC HEMATOLOGIST/ONCOLOGIST, AND NATIVE STATEN ISLANDER, DR. JOANNA PIERRO CARES FOR THE BOROUGH’S MOST PRECIOUS PATIENTS TO ENSURE LONG LIVES OF HEALTH, HAPPINESS, AND OPPORTUNITY
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Joanna Pierro, D.O., a board-certified pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Northwell Health’s Florina Cancer Center, pointed to a finger painting hanging on the wall of her team’s office, a gift from one of her current patients, Kathleen. “You guys are my heroes” covers the page in colorful crayon. Dr. Pierro smiled at it fondly, adding that Kathleen never enters an examination room without Rosie, her stuffed dog and sidekick. In fact, physicians and nurses all know the faux animal by name; Rosie even has her own hospital tag and IV line and gets regular check-ups by Dr. Pierro. “Children are resilient,” said Dr. Pierro, a mother of two herself. “They are so brave, facing such tough times with a smile. As physicians, they inspire us every day.”
Dr. Pierro said taking care of her home borough is one of the greatest rewards of joining the program at SIUH, touting the support of her husband and two young children as instrumental in her success. “We pride ourselves in offering the highest quality of care right here in Staten Island,” she said, explaining that both she and her partner, Dr. Eleny Romanos Sirakis, come from esteemed programs and trained under the guidance of world leaders in cancer and blood disorders. “We bring advanced knowledge and technologies to the Island for the convenience of our patients and their families.”
Many of Dr. Pierro’s patients need to come in multiple times per week, which could potentially be a huge burden on the patient and their family in many ways. “It can be devastating logistically, financially, and emotionally to take your child back and forth into Manhattan round trip, often when not feeling well or in emergency situations,” Dr. Pierro said, adding that the new Florina Cancer Center, which includes a state-of-the-art Pediatrics wing, continues to elevate superior cancer care for children on Staten Island. “To be able to stay close to home while still receiving top-notch care in their backyard is absolutely life-changing.”
Born and raised on Staten Island, Dr. Pierro joined the clinical faculty at Staten Island University Hospital’s division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology in November 2020, where she provides evaluation and treatment for a wide variety of hematologic and oncologic conditions in children and adolescents. Her expertise spans blood disorders such as anemia and sickle cell disease to malignant bone tumors, abdominal tumors, lymphomas, and leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.
The physician’s fervor for pediatric oncology was first kindled while completing her clinical rotations as a medical student at New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Pierro found herself gravitating toward the cancer patients, and as a newlywed beginning a family of her own, she was particularly drawn to the pediatric wing.
“I really enjoyed the humanistic aspect of cancer care and being a source of comfort for the patients and their families,” she recalled, noting that upon obtaining her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree, she completed her residency in Pediatrics at SIUH. “A mother of young children myself, I could relate to the parents. I sympathized what it must feel like to go through such a devastating diagnosis.”
After her residency, Dr. Pierro pursued further specialized training through a fellowship in Pediatric Hematology/ Oncology at NYU Langone Health with a special focus on acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She then remained on the faculty of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health until an opportunity to return to her home borough presented itself in 2020.
“It was so rewarding to come back to the community I’ve always called home,” said Dr. Pierro, a former South Shore resident and alum of St. Joseph Hill Academy. “I didn’t choose SIUH for my residency by default; the care provided here is incredible, from bedside manner to outcomes,” she added, noting her affiliation with the Children’s Oncology Group, a global leader in pediatric cancer care and the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research.
Debunking a common misconception, Dr. Pierro explained there are several distinct differences between pediatric and adult oncology. “Children are not just little adults; their tumors behave differently, and their bodies can generally tolerate more chemotherapy than adults,” she said, noting the importance of the new Brian Halpin Pediatrics Cancer Center, where an entire section of the Florina Cancer Center is specifically designated for children’s oncology. “When treating adults, we are often trying to buy more time. With our pediatric patients, we are trying to buy a lifetime.”
Dr. Pierro also highlights the unique relationship between the physician, the patients, and their parents in her field. “The parents of our patients also tend to be young themselves,” said Dr. Pierro, explaining how they are often just getting established in life and are a dual-income household. “Many are also taking care of other young children and have competing demands, so childcare comes into play. We are sensitive to this at SIUH and we work closely with families to minimize these hardships.”
In addition, SIUH is keeping close tabs on several exciting recent advancements in oncological medicine that could potentially change the game in pediatric cancer care. One area is immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells that notoriously mutate and hide from the body. “Ten years ago, patients with leukemia who relapsed generally had dismal outcomes,” Dr. Pierro explained. “But through immunotherapy, we are moving into an era where the body’s T-cells are being harnessed to target the cancer cells, thereby improving outcomes and curing children who previously would not have survived.”
Investing in the next generation of physicians, Dr. Pierro also spearheads a student outreach program that inspires young Staten Islanders to pursue a career in pediatrics. She speaks at high schools throughout the borough about her experience as a pediatric hematologist/oncologist and the various opportunities that exist in the field. “The hope is they’ll pursue a career in medicine and one day come back to work in Staten Island, and give back to their community,” she said. “I’d love for them to know how rewarding it is to be able to provide superior care right here in our community without a bridge or ferry ride.”
The Florina Cancer Center
Brian Halpin Pediatrics Cancer Center
718.226.6400 / Northwell.edu/SIUHCancerCare