The ‘First’ Women of HMO
A wide array of female “firsts” in Israel have set standards, broken glass ceilings and been instrumental in helping shape the country throughout its first three-quarters of a century.
Is there another Israeli woman who is alive today who made history in some field over the past 75 years that you want to tell us about? We know there are many more female “firsts” out there! Send your suggestions with a few lines about what this woman accomplished to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resilience in the face of crises and awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses helped these pioneering women at the Hadassah Medical Organization become super achievers. They never saw barriers as dead ends. Even though Israel is a high-tech and medical powerhouse, it’s still a traditional society with a strong emphasis on women putting family first. Those who have made it, including the women featured here, will tell you what a boon a supportive parent and/or spouse is—not just for career coaching or emotional support, but as actual backup.
Dr. Shaden Salameh-Youssef was making her morning rounds in December 2020 as head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus when she checked on a 58-year-old woman who had been recently admitted with stomach pains and dizziness. Dr. Salameh-Youssef read the blood tests and looked at the patient. “Something in her color was wrong,” she said. “Then I heard that she’d cooked mushroom soup, and I knew we had a ticking bomb.”
The patient was suffering from mushroom poisoning and was about to go into shock and organ failure.
“I’d never seen a case like this, but I’d learned about it in my studies. I knew that there would be a sudden deterioration that could cost her life,” said Dr. Salameh-Youssef. “There’s something that goes beyond the number of tests that has to do with experience and intuition in medicine.”
Both knowledge and experience were hard-won for Dr. Salameh-Youssef, the first Arab woman in Israel to head a hospital emergency department. The 40-something doctor grew up in the village of Tur’an near Nazareth in the Galilee. At age 10, she decided to pursue a career in medicine after her grandfather had a heart attack and she was the one who needed to find help.
There were no local medical services near the village, and she had difficulty describing his condition by phone to the paramedics and convincing them that they needed to come immediately.
Although Hebrew was her second language and English her third, she passed the entrance exams for the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Medicine. She completed a residency in internal and emergency medicine and also obtained a master’s degree in health administration.
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“All along the way, people told me I was dreaming, that I’d never make it,” she said. “What did Henrietta Szold say? Dream big! That’s my life theme.”
Since being appointed head of the Mount Scopus emergency room in 2019, she has supervised the expansion and refurbishment of the busy department. This includes the establishment of northern Jerusalem’s first shock-trauma center, which treats patients affected by terrorism, motor accidents and falls.
A mother of three who is married to Hadassah urologist Dr. Fadi Youssef, Dr. Salameh-Youssef recently took part in the Executive Leadership Program at Harvard Business School.
As for the woman suffering from mushroom poisoning: She was in intensive care for five weeks, resuscitated three times, then transferred to Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, where she was put on a heart-lung machine. After round-the-clock treatment, she woke up from her coma, but it was weeks before she could walk and function independently.
“It’s a miracle survival,” said Dr. Salameh-Youssef. “Sometimes what looks like a plain belly ache turns out to be a life-or-death emergency. Telling the difference is what we’re there for.”
Dr. Polina Stepensky
Head of HMO’s Department of Bone Marrow Transplantation and Immunotherapy
Who she is: First physician in the world to cure a fatal bone disease called osteopetrosis, a rare disorder in which a child’s bones are literally petrified.
Background: Age 55, emigrated in 1991 from her native Vinnytsia, Ukraine, where she was studying medicine. In Israel, she was advised that “only geniuses can be doctors” so she switched to nursing before turning back to medicine and graduating cum laude from the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Medicine.
Little-known fact: Pioneered ongoing training of Ukrainian medical staff in cancer treatments at HMO as an expression of support for the embattled country of her birth.
Recent accomplishment: Developed the first CAR-T immunotherapy treatment outside of the United States and China to treat and cure multiple myeloma, a blood cancer.
Quote: “Henrietta Szold’s advice to dare to dream is often quoted, but she taught us to take small practical steps to achieve our goals. That’s how I work.”
Judith Steiner-Freud: Former head of Hadassah’s nursing programs
Who she is: First to academize the field of nursing in Israel; under her leadership, the Hadassah school of nursing became the first academic nursing school, with Bachelor of Nursing degrees conferred by Hadassah and the Hebrew University.
Background: Age 103, born on December 5, 1919, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and received a rare entry certificate, granted in 1939 by the British authorities, to study at Hadassah’s school of nursing in Jerusalem.
Little-known fact: Her late husband, musician Eli Freud, was a relative of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst.
Recent accomplishment: Still active in the alumni society of Hadassah’s nursing school.
Quote: Steiner-Freud was teaching students at Hadassah’s school of nursing, then on Mount Scopus, on April 13, 1948, when she heard the Arab attack on the medical convoy bringing medical and military supplies and personnel to the Mount Scopus hospital not far away. “I kept teaching because I knew war was coming and we’d need every nurse.”
Dr. Dina Ben-Yehuda: Dean of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine; head of HMO’s Department of Hematology
Who she is: In 2017, became the first woman to head Hadassah’s faculty of medicine; clinical hematologist and physician-researcher.
Background: Age 69, born in Haifa, decided to become a doctor at age 3 after her older brother died of cancer.
Little-known fact: First female soldier to be awarded an Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff citation, presented to her in 1974 for initiating home visits to families whose children were missing in action or killed.
Recent accomplishment: Headed the national committee in 2022 that decided which new medications will be paid for by the public health system. Named to the Israeli magazine Globes’ 2023 list of 50 influential women in the State of Israel.
Quote: Speaking of the medical school’s newest advanced track in computational medicine, combining “big data” with medicine to determine patient protocols, she quipped, “I’m already registering my five preschool grandchildren. That’s the future.”
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Barbara Sofer, an award-winning journalist and author, is Israel director of public relations for Hadassah.