words by Mary Ann Littell / photograph by John Emerson
Not many physicians break into song when performing diagnostic procedures. But pediatric radiologist Sharon Underberg-Davis says her musical skills come in handy when she’s on the job.
have a large repertoire of children’s songs,” she says. “I sing the Barney song, I sing the ABCs — whatever it takes to get a child through a procedure.”
Clearly, Underberg-Davis is good at what she does. She was named to New York magazine’s “Top Docs” list for the second straight year. “I deal with all parts of kids — the entire body, head to feet and everything in between,” she says. “I read MRI, CT, ultrasound, plain film and fluoroscopy. It ends up being a varied and interesting case load, because I’m doing some of everything.”
The physician, who grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, describes her route to radiology as “a series of zigzags. I had to consider a lot of different options before I found what suited me best.” She and her older sister, an ob/gyn practicing in New Hampshire, were the first in their family to become physicians. “My sister had her appendix removed when she was 12 and decided right then and there to become a doctor. I always said I would not become a doctor because she was going to be one. But I’m an extrovert, and I always knew that whatever I did would involve working with people.”
As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, Underberg-Davis considered becoming a psychologist. After her freshman year, her father, who was director of retail services at Mount Sinai Medical Center, got her a summer job as a secretary in Mount Sinai’s cardiothoracic surgery department. “The department chair, Dr. Robert Litwak, took an interest in me — he thought I was bright and a hard worker. I told him I wanted to be a psychologist and asked if there were any summer jobs in that field for me at Mount Sinai. He said, ‘Why don’t you become a psychiatrist instead? You’ll do all the things psychologists do, plus prescribe medicine.’ He put a lot of ideas into my head and completely changed my thinking.”
After graduating from college with a degree in psychology, Underberg-Davis applied to medical schools. Among those that accepted her were Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Baylor, where she was offered a scholarship. “The thought of graduating from medical school with no debt was tempting, but I thought that someday I might regret not going to Harvard, so that’s where I went.”
At Harvard, she quickly learned that she did not want to be a psychiatrist. “My empathy often got in the way of the need to approach these patients clinically,” she says. “I couldn’t put my empathy aside.” Thus began another “series of zigzags” as she decided on a specialty. At one point she thought about going into internal medicine or pediatrics, but these weren’t quite what she wanted either.
Her pivotal rotation was in radiology at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital. “I discovered I really liked radiology, particularly the problem-solving aspect of it,” she says. “We’re given clues and we have to put them together to come up with the answers. I had the visual skills for this, and I loved the challenge.”
Spending time with radiologist Dr. Harry Z. Mellins, her mentor at Brigham, clinched it: “Dr. Mellins said if you want to touch patients every day, you probably don’t want to be a radiologist, but your interpersonal skills are very important in this specialty, and you’ll have ample opportunity to use them.”
She did an internship in internal medicine at Brigham and a radiology residency at the University of Pennsylvania. “I had one last zigzag there. I took extra training in body MRI and considered specializing in it. But when I did my pediatric radiology rotation at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), I realized I’d found my calling.” Following a one-year fellowship in pediatric radiology at CHOP, she came to New Jersey to be a partner at University Radiology. “I wanted to be part of this dynamic multispecialty radiology group and to be in a hybrid academic/private practice setting,” she says. “As a dedicated pediatric radiologist for University Radiology, I would be able to practice what I love and do best.”
With eight offices in New Jersey and more than 65 partners, University Radiology is the largest radiology group in the state. “Our practice has a real commitment to providing quality subspecialty radiology services. We put into action the philosophy that every patient should be matched with a radiology expert in their area of concern. That’s key to providing good healthcare.” Underberg-Davis is one of four pediatric radiologists in the group and also serves on its Board of Directors.
Four days a week, she divides her time between Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and St. Peter’s University Hospital, where she serves as vice chair of the radiology department. The fifth day is spent at one of University Radiology’s private offices. On a typical day in the office, she performs up to nine pediatric fluoroscopic studies, interprets up to 25 pediatric and adult ultrasounds and reads x-rays and CT-MRIs for all age groups. She estimates that she puts in between 45 and 55 hours a week, including taking call and working nights. A single parent of two children ages 11 and 14, she employs a full-time live-in nanny. “If my children have something important going on in the afternoon, I try to arrange my schedule to be there,” she says.
“Radiology is a great field for women,” she continues, “but when I first started, it took some of the old-guard guys a little time to realize I was worth talking to.” She recalls approaching an older surgeon to discuss imaging studies for one of his patients. “A few minutes later I overheard him ask the head of the file room, ‘Who the hell was that?’”
Another incident “made me angry. The ER asked us to do an upper GI series on a vomiting infant. We did an x-ray first, and I could see that the baby’s belly was full of gas, indicating that an organ had perforated. This baby didn’t need an upper GI series — he needed surgery right away. When I told the parents, they said, ‘Can we get a second opinion from a male doctor?’ I explained that I was the senior pediatric radiologist, but they insisted on talking to a man. So I called one in. He told them, ‘Yes, I agree with this diagnosis,’ and they said, ‘Oh, thank you, doctor.’”
As more women enter medicine, those incidents don’t happen much anymore, says the radiologist, who adds that she’s “been fortunate to always work with people who were supportive of family life. I knew a woman radiologist from another group who hid her pregnancy as long as she could and wore double lead aprons to protect herself and her baby. At our group, we would work out a schedule where a pregnant woman would not have direct x-ray exposure. We help each other.”
Underberg-Davis is also active in her synagogue, where’s she’s co-chair of the religion committee and directs the synagogue choir. She loves to act and sing and also has played the violin. “In college, I was in a chorus and a smaller swing trio where we sang in close harmony, singing songs like ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.’ I was singing six days a week.
“When our synagogue choir director left a few years ago, it looked like the choir would die. There were only four of us left. To keep it alive, we kept singing and recruited a few teenagers to join us. I became choir director by default. I wasn’t an experienced conductor, so I called myself the ‘semi-conductor.’ Now we’re up to 12 members, and I feel that I have grown into the job.”
When asked if there was anything she’d like to change about medicine, she says jokingly, “Where do I start? First, there’s the paranoia about malpractice. Tests are sometimes ordered for marginal reasons because of the fear of being sued. When you’re reading studies you always see lots of little things — I call them ditzels — tiny things in the lung or liver that statistics say are almost certainly benign. Even though clinicians are confident that they have accurately evaluated a case and made the right decisions, they feel they have to order extra tests to protect themselves. That is unfortunate. ”
When one of her children recently expressed an interest in going into medicine, she said, “I want her to understand the realities of this field. I understood what medical school and residency were all about, but I had no idea what practicing would be like. In the current economic and regulatory environment, there are added pressures and obstacles to practicing good medicine. Physicians have to learn to deal with those while making sure they provide the best care possible for their patients. They don’t teach you that.”
But at the end of the day, she’s glad she chose her profession. “I love what I do. I enjoy practicing radiology and I love working with children. This field puts all my skills together."