July-August 2021 | Health

Top Doctors spotlights 2021

Interviews with six of the physicians in our Top Doctors package

share this

Top Doctors 2021 »


Dr. Thomas Matthew, Cardiac Surgery

A surgeon for nearly 30 years, Dr. Thomas Matthew is director of the Johns Hopkins Cardiothoracic Surgery Program at Suburban Hospital. Matthew studied electrical engineering at Harvard, earned his medical degree from Columbia University, and received a Master of Science degree in surgical research from the University of Virginia. He is also an assistant professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins and chairman of the Maryland Cardiac Surgery Quality Initiative, a consortium of 11 cardiac surgery programs in Maryland. Matthew lives in Northwest D.C. with his wife, Dayna Bowen Matthew, dean of the George Washington University Law School.

Why did you want to become a heart surgeon?

My father was the first Black neurosurgeon trained in the United States and practiced for 40 years in New York City…so he was my first influence. And surgery was just so interesting because you actually made a difference immediately in a person’s life. We couldn’t go to a restaurant in New York without somebody coming up and saying, ‘Dr. Matthew, what you did for my father, brother, sister, myself…’ Over and over I heard that. Then I looked at all the specialties, and cardiac surgery piqued my interest because it involved a pump that had an electrical circuit and had a system of arteries, capillaries and veins. …It appealed to the engineer in me.

How do you calm a patient’s anxiety before surgery?

The first thing I always show them is their pathology. I often take a printout of the cardiac catheterization that shows the blockages in the coronary arteries. I show them actually what the problem is, and then I show them how we’re going to fix it. And then I share with them that our operative risk is under 2% for coronary artery bypass grafting. …I share with them that their risk of not having the surgery is actually higher than the risk of having the surgery. That really helps, when they can understand what we’re doing is correcting a problem.

What advice do you offer to younger surgeons?

Believe the patient. The patient will tell you what’s going on. A careful history is important, and with a physical examination you can very often find things that will give you clues—if not what the underlying problem is, what are some of the things that you need to be concerned about. Because surgery is not just cutting. It’s a process of preparing the patient for surgery beforehand, doing the surgery, and then managing their comorbidities postoperatively. All of that requires careful, detailed attention to the patient—and then also developing a relationship. If the patient believes in you and they trust you, they do so much better.


Dr. Sonya Chawla, Internal Medicine, and Dr. Vivek Patil, Colon and Rectal Surgery

Sonya Chawla and Vivek Patil were both training to be doctors in 2008 when they met in a hallway at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C. Dating someone in the same profession with a demanding schedule meant understanding that a dinner date could be at 3 p.m. And more than flowers, Chawla appreciated Patil bringing her coffee before a late-night shift. They say they connected over their idealistic values and desire to make an impact, and they married two years later. They have two daughters and live in Bethesda, where they both practice (Patil also has an office in Rockville). Chawla grew up in Potomac and attended Holton-Arms School. She studied government and English at Georgetown University, received a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, and earned her medical degree at the University of Chicago. Patil, who is from St. Mary’s County, also went to Georgetown as an undergraduate, where he majored in biology. He taught middle school science for a year in D.C. before returning to Georgetown for medical school. Patil completed six years of surgical training with a sub-specialization in colon and rectal surgery.

Why did you want to become a physician?

Chawla: I decided to take a turn in my career path from journalism to medicine. That decision was really rooted in my direct experiences being in New York and reporting on victims and families on 9/11. It wasn’t enough to be reporting on the stories—I wanted something that would allow me to help in a more tangible way. It may not be the most obvious path, but in the end, so much of internal medicine is about the skill of communication, helping people better understand their disease process in clear, relatable language, and really empowering them to take care of themselves. I definitely found my calling.

Patil: I always have enjoyed science. One thing that drew me to medicine was the fact that you could apply scientific principles, but there’s this framework of compassion and empathy that always underlies it. So it becomes a sort of a living science—that really fascinated me and drew me in. Surgery, specifically, because I really liked the immediacy of it and the ability to change the course of a person’s disease with your hands.

What’s it like having two doctors in the family?

Chawla: It’s great. We’re both physicians, but the nature of our work—as an internist and a surgeon—is very different. For my career, I love the thinking, the relationship building and the longitudinal follow-up over years. He’s the one who sees a problem and gets to use a scalpel to cure it.

Patil: I think being able to be in these fields gives you this gratitude that sort of carries over throughout the rest of your life—and it’s really wonderful to be able to share that with your partner.

How were you and your work affected by COVID?

Patil: Initially, everything shut down except for the most emergent surgeries. Sonya and I volunteered to be members of the workforce at the local hospitals. Patients weren’t getting colonoscopies and people weren’t going to doctors’ offices, [and] unfortunately that meant more advanced presentation in the emergency room. Things came back online gradually. There were no visiting hours because of COVID. These patients would be undergoing major operations and recovering alone in a hospital bed. They were attended to by people who are masked, gowned and gloved. As dedicated as the staffing is in the hospital, you’re missing simple human touch and things like that that really helped you heal.

Chawla: The most difficult part was watching the oldest and most vulnerable patients in our population, who had lived such full lives, die alone. I’m still processing that. It didn’t seem like the end to their life that they deserved.


Dr. Marc DiFazio, Pediatric Neurology

Pediatric neurologist Marc DiFazio didn’t stop seeing patients at Children’s National Hospital when he became vice president of ambulatory services at the D.C. hospital in March. He says it’s important for him to stay connected to the people he treats for epilepsy, concussions, Tourette’s syndrome and other conditions, even with his new leadership role. Before coming to Children’s in 2012, DiFazio was in private practice in Rockville. He went to medical school at Loyola University in Chicago and was on active duty with the U.S. Army for 15 years, including serving as chief of child and adolescent neurology services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He’s in the U.S. Army Reserve and lives in Gaithersburg. He travels a few times a year to other countries to train medical personnel.

What lessons have you learned since you began practicing?

Just out of medical school or residency, you’re enthralled by the science and pathology. It’s just such an incredible gift for parents to give you to share their children with you and let you into their lives. As I matured, I recognized that understanding the human connection in medicine, fundamentally, is more important oftentimes than some of the complexities of science or what we do with medicine or machines. It’s the human interaction that we really bring to the table as clinicians.

What’s motivated you to teach medicine in other countries?

It’s important to give back. I target training programs for nurses, physicians and medical students that I hope leave them with impactful information that can affect change long after I’m gone. I go there also to learn. In this country, we see tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, but typically not tetanus, for example. They teach me about some of these conditions that they’re so much more medically versed in. Many would be very surprised to see how robust their preventative medicine strategies are. That’s helped me understand the importance of vaccine programs, which is one of the reasons I think we’re all a little bit distraught about vaccine compliance in the United States when we see so much good [it has done] overseas.

How do you feel medicine will be different going forward, having been through the pandemic?

People are beginning to wake up to the fact that telemedicine is not just about convenience, it’s about effective communication. That is a dramatic shift in medicine. I believe telemedicine and secure texting with families will continue. Instead of them coming to me and holding their baby, I’m going into some of these families’ homes [remotely]—and, weirdly, meeting their dogs. But it’s another potential way to gain a connection.


Dr. Kathryn Kirk, Gastroenterology

Dr. Kathryn Kirk sees some patients in her Chevy Chase office of Capital Digestive Care who travel over an hour for appointments with her because she speaks Spanish. She says Latinos are among the most underscreened populations for colorectal cancer and can be reluctant to get colonoscopies, so she is especially happy when they seek out care. Kirk, whose mother was from Puerto Rico, grew up in Potomac and attended National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. After studying English at Princeton University, she went to Cornell University Medical College. In New York City, Kirk did her residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, and a fellowship in gastroenterology at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, before going into private practice. While her friends would vacation in the Hamptons, Kirk says she would come to Maryland to eat crabs with her family. In 2010, she moved back and settled in Bethesda. “My soul never left this area,” she says.

How is practicing as a physician different from what you expected?

My late mother was very much my role model. She was a physician. She had an office in the basement of our house in Potomac. I could crawl out of bed in the summer in my jammies and walk downstairs and say hi to her patients. I knew that kind of Norman Rockwell, smaller medicine, not big insurance, Big Pharma, big contract medicine. …The medicine I grew up hoping to emulate was very old school, so to speak. You knew your patients forever and their whole families. When the phone rang in my house, my mom picked up regardless of the time. The levels of bureaucracy, prior authorizations, the nonmedical medicine [now] is what is a little bit disheartening to me and many others.

What kind of impact has COVID-19 had on your practice?

For many reasons, it’s been trying. We basically came to a virtual standstill in April and May [of 2020]. It wasn’t good for anyone—certainly not for patients who were missing out on care they needed and there were definitely people who were putting off much-needed procedures. All of us were doing telemedicine. Obviously, you can only garner so much from those platforms, but it’s better than nothing. …We’re technically a small business. We did furlough a bunch of people, but most are back. Now we’re near where we should be, but there is a huge backlog. We did what we could, and we were fortunate enough to have made it through.

What do you enjoy outside of the office?

I have another job coaching springboard diving at a pool in Bethesda. It’s something I did in high school and college. I love that the kids are so stoked about diving. Many come in with a lot of trepidation, and they leave having gained a lot of confidence. One of the ways I stay sane is balancing all the things that I do. For me, too much of one thing is never good. So [coaching] gets me into my happy space—not that medicine isn’t. But if I’ve had a heavy medicine day, getting outside to the pool with smiley kids who want to learn is always fun.


Dr. Thomas Pinckert, Maternal and Fetal Medicine

Dr. Thomas Pinckert grew up in Arizona and went to medical school on a U.S. Air Force scholarship at the University Oregon Health Sciences Center. He was active duty for four years at Travis Air Force Base in California and then four years at the Air Force Academy Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He gained expertise in high-risk obstetrics and clinical genetics through fellowships at the University of California-San Francisco. In 2002, he opened Greater Washington Maternal-Fetal Medicine and Genetics with offices in Rockville, Silver Spring, and Fairfax, Virginia. Pinckert is a clinical professor in OB-GYN at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. He lives in Potomac with his wife, Dr. Nicolette Horbach, a urogynecologist.

What big changes have you witnessed in your field, especially with technology?

The revolution and definition with the ultrasound. It used to be very fuzzy. You could sort of see the heart rate, but it was difficult. Now we can find things like spina bifida, structural or skeletal problems. Occasionally we see a baby with a gallstone or evidence of maternal infection. Secondarily, blood tests. It used to be that women who were over age 35 could have an amniocentesis or a chorionic villus sampling, which is a placenta biopsy, and that’s how we determined fetal well-being. Now there are so many blood tests that are available that are noninvasive. It’s become very sophisticated. It’s the basis for the gender reveal parties.

What do you enjoy about your work?

We have a lot of patients who are just eternally grateful. I remember a mother who had six losses at 20 weeks. She had weakness in her cervix. We were able to do a surgery to help strengthen that, and then she had three term babies. I had another mom who came in recently with her 16-year-old daughter and said, ‘You saved my daughter’s life. I was having premature labor, and you were able to stop that.’ I joke and say we’re just fancy midwives. We have a great job because we take people at their worst moment—when they’re scared and worried—and, if we are able, we can turn that around.

Do you keep a tally of your deliveries? Any memorable ones?

No, but it’s upwards of 6,000 or 8,000. A while back, I had a mom who had three kids, [ages] 6, 4 and 2. She wanted to have one more baby and ended up with quadruplets. Of course, we were worried about her and I recommended a cesarean section. She said, ‘I am not having a cesarean, I had three vaginal deliveries.’ I still remember delivering this woman’s quadruplets vaginally. One was head first, two were breech and the fourth was head first. They all delivered beautifully in about 17 minutes. Luckily, everybody did great.