September 2, 2014
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Women on a Mission

That woman standing in line at the supermarket? She might be a best-selling author, a life-saving surgeon, or a global venture philanthropist, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Meet six seemingly ordinary ladies who are doing extraordinary things.

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Photo by Jonathan TimmesStephanie Akbari

Medical director, Reinsch Pierce Family Center for Breast Health, Virginia Hospital Center

More than 230,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. every year, but Stephanie Akbari doesn’t think of her patients as statistics. She sees each one as a person who feels blindsided, overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. Treating the emotions, she says, is as important as treating the disease.

“It’s the right thing to do. That’s what I’d want from doctors,” says the breast surgeon, who is 46. On the bookshelf in her office is a bucket stuffed with hundreds of thank-you notes. “I save them all,” she says.

Akbari attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and completed her general surgery residency at Harvard. When she moved to McLean in 2000, she was surprised to discover only one surgeon in all of Northern Virginia specializing in breast health.

At the same time, she was dismayed to find that breast cancer patients in the area had no choice but to drive all over town for various tests and consultations, often carting their medical records and films with them. She wondered why no one offered comprehensive care in a single location. “I tried [selling the idea to] different hospitals,” she says, “and no one wanted to do it.”

That changed in 2008 with the opening of the Center for Breast Health at Virginia Hospital Center, which Akbari heads as medical director. In this “one-stop shopping” environment, breast surgeons, plastic surgeons, radiologists, oncologists, physical therapists and patient advocates work together as a team. All services—from diagnostic screenings to surgery to support groups—are delivered in one place, making the logistics less stressful for patients so they can focus on healing. And the medical records are all digital.

The center’s walls aren’t covered in standard Komen-for-the-Cure pink. “We wanted it to be warm but not too girly,” Akbari says. Instead, the space features soft colors that reference a four-paneled watercolor painting in the waiting room by acclaimed local artist Patricia Tobacco Forrester, who died last year at age 70.

Akbari is attractive and fit (she runs 15 miles a week) but not a pink kind of gal. A single mom, she wakes up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast and pack lunches for her two sons, Andrew, 10, and Alex, 7. She’s typically at the office by 7:30 a.m. and leaves at 5:30 p.m., with surgeries scheduled every Tuesday and every other Wednesday. When she’s not working, she’s busy taking the boys to Little League practice or rock climbing or to the pool.

“I’m one of the oldest moms at my school,” she says. “Part of being a surgeon—especially a woman surgeon—requires you to put a lot of things on hold. Like having a family. You don’t have kids as a surgical resident. When I was in training, they would kick you out for that.”

She also remembers being on call in her 20s and 30s while friends went out to concerts and bars. “I look back and wonder what I did,” she says. “It was a trade-off.”

But she has few regrets. In her office, amid the off-color New Yorker cartoons taped to her computer and the handpainted Mother’s Day presents from her kids are shelves jammed with photos and gifts from patients. The hallway outside sports a framed jersey from Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, whose mom, Nancy, was one of those patients.

She picks up a framed photo of a woman with a golden retriever. “This is my favorite,” she says. The woman is holding a sign that says, “No More Breast Cancer. Thank You, Dr. Akbari.”

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