Dr. Sarah Vaiselbuh was in her native Belgium, completing training in internal medicine and adult bone marrow transplantation, when a 12 year old leukemia patient changed her life and the course of her career. “She told her parents she wanted to stay with me because she liked my smile,” Dr. Vaiselbuh said, recalling the case that caused her to switch gears and focus on pediatric oncology. “It was a transitional moment, one that played a strong role in my choice of pediatric specialty.”

After earning an MD in surgery and obstetrics/gynecology from the University of Antwerp in Belgium, Vaiselbuh finished a residency in internal medicine, followed by a fellowship in adult oncology and bone marrow transplantation at the University Hospital of Antwerp. She then moved to the United States for a six year training period in basic cancer research at Mount Sinai Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center. Laboratory research training was followed by a second clinical residency in pediatrics at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, North Shore LIJ Health System, where she worked as a member of its junior faculty for two years. In 2011, Vaiselbuh became the director of the Children’s Cancer Center at SIUH.

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Throughout all of her training in the U.S., she kept in contact with her young patient in Belgium. They shared letters and the Make A Wish Foundation granted the child’s request to visit her beloved doctor in Manhattan. When the young girl relapsed at age 16 and had a bone marrow transplant, Vaiselbuh flew back to Belgium for the procedure.

“With her big brown eyes, she asked me, ‘Why did I get this?’ and the worst part for me was that I had no answer,” recalled Vaiselbuh. “So I told her we should just leave the question ‘Why’ and move onto ‘How…how are we were going to fix it.’”

Before the transplant, the doctor gave her patient a diary because she loved to write. She filled it with entries about her goals, dreams, and her battle with cancer. The diary was published after her death at the age of 18.

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“She motivated me as a clinician to stay linked to research,” Vaiselbuh said. “Clinical medicine can be so emotionally hard, but research puts me intellectually in charge. And if my research puts us one drop in the ocean closer to answering that ‘Why,’ then it’s worth the effort.”

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And with her recent appointment as vice president of research at SIUH, Vaiselbuh is helping to fulfil her patient’s wish.

“Without research, we cannot progress and cannot make improvements,” she explained. “I am still working with patients, but my role in research will be to reform the table of organization, dividing the work and allowing the entire team here to have complete input.”

Vaiselbuh still serves as the hospital’s director of Pediatric Hemato/Oncology and will continue to sit on various committees at SIUH and Northwell Health. Her laboratory research will focus on the pathogenesis of pediatric leukemia, and she is currently the principal investigator of a Phase III clinical trial on an investigational new drug for sickle cell patients.

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“Those who suffer from sickle cell disease often experience a lot of pain, because when sickle cells travel through small blood vessels, they can get stuck and clog the blood flow,” she noted. “This causes mild to severe pain that can start suddenly and last for any length of time. For the past 30 years, the only real solution to this was a blood transfusion; absolutely no change has been made in the management of this disease. But our research team is working with a company who has developed an antibody that can be given to reduce the long term damage of these side effects. A trial is currently up and running for children with sickle cell pain, and we’re hoping this new approach will change how we treat this disease.”

Dr. Vaiselbuh is also an assistant professor at the Karches Center for Oncology at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and an associate professor in Pediatrics and Molecular Medicine at Hofstra University’s Zucker School of Medicine, positions which support her research work at SIUH.

“Some of our trials are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies in which we evaluate the validity of a medicine or device,” she said. “Others are initiated by our own faculty. And patients are by no means guinea pigs; each one endures a rigorous review process to see if he or she is the right candidate for a particular trial. In addition to benefitting the entire patient population, the study must be an important step in their individual journey to a cure,” adding that she is particularly excited about the hospital’s current research focus on endometriosis.

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“Dr. Peter Gregersen, who is very well known for his studies in genomics, is leading a study on this,” Vaiselbuh said. “So many women suffer from this condition but there is very little known about what causes it.”

Gregersen’s Research Out Smarts Endometriosis (ROSE) program is studying the genetic basis of endometriosis and what is occurring at the cellular level in this disease. As part of ROSE, research volunteers, both healthy controls and those with the condition, provide peripheral and menstrual blood samples which are stored in a biobank so they can be examined in current and future research studies.

The scientists involved in this project recently announced an experimental, rapid, and noninvasive way to diagnose, one that may lead to earlier and more effective treatments for a disorder that affects approximately 176 million women globally.

“It’s results like these that make the field of medical research so exciting and fulfilling,” said Vaiselbuh, while explaining that this success is just a sample of what the future holds for Staten Island patients.

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“My commitment to this hospital and to the patients of Staten Island is to provide state of the art research, testing, and clinical treatment right here in this borough,” she concluded. “There should be no need for patients to travel off of Staten Island for the newest, most innovative treatment or access to new medication.”

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