Barbara and William Rosenthal Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine, NYMC School of Medicine
Professor of Pharmacology, Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences
William H. Frishman, M.D., is the Barbara and William Rosenthal Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine and professor of pharmacology at New York Medical College. He has written more than 14 textbooks and 1,000 academic articles. After more than four decades at the intersection of patient care, clinical research, and teaching, he has touched the lives of more than 7,500 students and 1,500 residents and fellows. Dr. Frishman credits his early mentors as his most important career influence and urges every medical student at NYMC to seek out a mentor—the earlier, the better.
Tell us a little about your own personal journey. What motivated you to pursue a career in medicine and what were some highlights along the way?
Like a lot of Americans, my journey began with a proud immigrant experience. I come from a family of Jewish garment workers who arrived in New York City during the early 1900s from central Europe. I was raised in a two-room tenement in the South Bronx which was often so cold that a glass of water would freeze on my bed stand overnight. On one particularly cold day as a young child, I recall being sick in bed, and our family physician made a house call to attend to me. I have great memories of him, appropriately named Dr. Goodman. There is a Hebrew word for angel, “malach,” which also means messenger. I think of Dr. Goodman as my malach because he awakened me to my destiny to pursue medicine. As for deciding on a specialty, a long history of cardiac problems in my family made cardiology an easy choice.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
My teachers and my mentors. I had wonderful mentors in cardiology since the early days of my career. Two of them, Thomas Killip III, M.D. and Edmund Sonnenblick, M.D., were among the nation’s top five cardiologists in the last half of the twentieth century. My chief of medicine when I was on staff at The Einstein College Hospital (now Montefiore Medical Center – Weiler Hospital), Dr. David Hamerman, was also very important to me. He was the one who advised me to go into academia, and encouraged me to come to NYMC, telling me to “go for it.” I’ve stayed connected to these extraordinary doctors throughout my entire career, making my life infinitely richer.
What do you consider NYMC’s greatest asset for its students?
Because we’re in New York, the patients our students see come from all over the world. With a variety of different hospital training sites–spanning very diverse populations from inner city hospitals to community and military hospitals–we may have the most varied set of clinical experiences offered to medical students in the country.
What is a typical day like for you?
My days are never “typical.” Every day, it’s a different challenge in making sure that the clinical department runs well, and that we are fulfilling our responsibility to deliver medical education.
What is typical is that every day, I learn from my students, and I am inspired by the work of the students, residents and fellows who I helped train. And after these many years, one of my greatest joys remains rushing to the hospital emergency room, and being able to reassure a frightened spouse that her husband will fully recover from a heart attack—this is at the center of everything I do.
What advice would you give graduating SOM students?
The most important thing, especially in a professional field like medicine, is to find a mentor–somebody who will guide and watch over you. As a student and later, as a physician, you are pulled in so many directions. Your life can go around and around in circles. This is fine for a little while, but you have to set a direction. Having a mentor can help you to focus and achieve your goals.
Finding the right mentor can take a while. It’s like choosing a partner to marry; you need someone you can be compatible with for years to come.
As the pace of change in medicine further accelerates, what should students keep on their radar?
Today’s medical students should be working and educating themselves so they can help guide how our health care system evolves. To be part of the solution in health care delivery, they need to pay attention to what is happening, and advocate for what they believe. Personally, I am a great believer in the single payer system.
Another important trend in medicine is that people are living longer, so aging and its consequences will be a major health concern for the nation.
What do you believe to be the biggest challenge facing medical students? How does NYMC prepare students to address these challenges?
A big challenge right now is how to deal with and absorb all the information in medicine because information is increasing exponentially. NYMC does a really good job in developing students as independent learners, giving them the tools they need to take responsibility for their own learning and setting them up for life-long self-study.
You recently published a new book, Triumph over Tragedy. Tell us a bit about it.
It’s my personal story as well as sort of a “how-to” advice book for young people to see how a career in medicine can work. In it, I explore the many roles I’ve played through life: son, student, soldier, doctor, teacher, husband, father and academic leader. I talk about the tragedy of my father’s early death and some of the great experiences of my life like serving in the military and the great honor to care for the true heroes returning from the Vietnam War. I also talk a lot about my personal journey, which I feel very fortunate has taken me to NYMC and a hospital like Westchester Medical Center. I love to read and I love to write, so the story came easily.
What can you tell students who are starting out in the SOM?
Students here share one important quality: they are very resilient. They can overcome adversity–no matter what the circumstances—and succeed. Most students have yet to realize just how good they are. The school is here to help them discover that quality in themselves.
On the first day of the clerkship for third-year students, I tell them that there are two careers that are “callings.” Medicine is one of them. (The clergy is the other.) Students need to passionate about medicine. Being a doctor is a great privilege.