Trying to make the world a better place — tikkun olam in the Jewish culture — is the philosophy that pulmonology specialist Alan Chausow, M.D., strives to live by. In the 35 years since he joined the Sunnyvale Clinic, which later became part of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, he has been steadfastly honing his medical knowledge and skills in accordance with this principle.
I have given my life to this clinic and it feels wonderful to be appreciated.
Although his wife, Debbie, is responsible for bringing the Chicago native to California, Dr. Chausow knew immediately that PAMF’s style of care perfectly suited his own and would allow him to achieve his goals. “I have liked the collaborative care model at PAMF since the moment I arrived,” he says. “It is so powerful to have a common approach with other specialists so we can discuss ideas and solve patient problems as a team. In fact, I requested that the pulmonology department be placed next to the cardiology department in Mountain View so we could easily access our colleagues to consult.”
Advancing Pulmonary Medicine
Pulmonary medicine today is dramatically different from how it was when Dr. Chausow started at the Sunnyvale Clinic. Back then, spirometers were used to gauge lung capacity, ultrasound was not nearly as advanced, and pulmonary and critical care patients were treated by internists, whereas now they are treated by specialists in either discipline.
In his early days, Dr. Chausow practiced in four specialties: internal medicine, sleep medicine, critical care and pulmonology. “It was an incredibly difficult start, juggling these different specialties, and it made for a very busy first year,” he recalls.
The clinic became especially busy as the AIDS crisis took root. “Many of the patients I saw were suffering with pneumocystis pneumonia, and at times the best role for me was to be an empathetic listener,” Dr. Chausow says. He was an early adopter of AZT, the only treatment for AIDS at that time, though it provided only temporary relief for patients.
As the years went on, Dr. Chausow became instrumental in bringing state-of-the-art equipment to PAMF, including pulmonary function test machines to replace spirometers and the first CT scanner to improve diagnostics and treatment for patients with pulmonary disease. One of his latest projects is to instate low-dose CT cancer screening for high-risk lung cancer patients, with the goal of catching cases earlier and hopefully saving more lives.
“PAMF is an academic-level practice without the fiefdoms, and I’m always trying to do more to push the profession,” Dr. Chausow says. “I could not have dreamed of the advances we’ve seen in the last 30 years, and I am energized knowing that 30 years from now, patients will have so many more options. You really can’t compare what we did then, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of going back.”
Spheres of Influence
Dr. Chausow’s impact goes far beyond pulmonary medicine. He also directs the intensive care unit at El Camino Hospital—a role he didn’t plan on taking. Upon realizing that the intensive care unit needed a medical director, he wrote the job description for the posting. But then when nobody would take the position, he stepped up.
Additionally, Dr. Chausow lobbied the clinic leadership to start a sleep department to help the growing number of patients suffering from sleep apnea and other sleep-related disorders. He also helped architect PAMF’s electronic medical record and has stayed involved to ensure the tool actually makes work easier — not more difficult — for doctors. He even took the initiative to learn how to perform navigational bronchoscopy, ultimately spawning the interventional pulmonology program at PAMF.
“In Chicago we have a saying: vote early and often,” Dr. Chausow says. “To me, what that really means is that if you want your voice heard, you have to be part of the process. This is why I volunteer for leadership assignments and continue to work to advance the level of compassionate care we offer.”
Recently, grateful colleagues at PAMF decided they wanted to thank Dr. Chausow for his dedication, leadership and continual efforts to move care forward. They felt there was no better way to do so than to start a philanthropic campaign to name the pulmonology department after him.
“Alan is the ultimate partner, always stepping up to the plate to help whenever needed,” says Elizabeth Vilardo, M.D., CEO of medical foundations, who also worked at the Sunnyvale Clinic in those early days. “Alan always has your back, and in situations that seem hopeless, he is there to stand with you through the end.”
Dr. Chausow was amazed and moved when he learned of his colleagues’ plan. “Debbie and I couldn’t believe it when they proposed the department naming,” he says. “It gave me a moment to reflect on the last four decades. I have given my life to this clinic and it feels wonderful to be appreciated in this way.”
Time for reflection will be welcomed by Dr. Chausow as he becomes a grandparent for the first time later this year. He looks forward to celebrating with his family, all of whom he says “are trying to make the world a better place.” No doubt they learned that from him.