Doctor Ivana Dzeletovic

From Serbia to Wisconsin; a leading voice in endoscopic cancer surgery.

Dr. Ivana Dzeletovic
Dr. Ivana Dzeletovic

At just 18 years old and with a thousand dollars to her name, Ivana Dzeletovic came to the United States from Serbia as an exchange student. She left behind a loving family in pursuit of an American dream. She found it.

Like so many others from around the world, television shaped Ivana's perception of life in the US. "I used to watch Miami Vice and I thought everyone lived in a beautiful place with palm trees and sports cars." Beyond the Crockett and Tubbs mystique, Ivana also knew that America was the place where, if she worked very hard, she could become a doctor.

She did.

Today, after sixteen years of school, rigorous training, vision and second jobs, Doctor Ivana Dzeletovic specializes in advanced endoscopy at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona.

Advanced endoscopy for gastrointestinal disorders and cancers of the stomach, esophagus, colon and small intestine, is a procedure that is minimally invasive but requires a great deal of training. It is both diagnostic and therapeutic. This type of procedure has improved in recent years because the tools, the optical physics and engineering, are demonstrably better. Higher pixel density means better resolution and the ability to perform more intricate operations. Doctor Dzeletovic has a more fun way to describe it, "My job is so cool; it's like a video game."

She explained that a patient in traditional surgery is asleep and paralyzed, but a patient undergoing an endoscopic procedure is asleep but not paralyzed, meaning the organs move and sometimes have to be chased around.

It makes the task more complex and for her, that's part if the intrigue. The more difficult a task, the more focus it requires, the more it appeals to her. She has what you might call a curse of high intellect. The doctor's mind is always moving from one idea to the next in a continuous search for solutions.

So a complex procedure, layered with potential problems, is just the what she needs to focus, and succeed.

Let's Back Up

Doctor Dzeletovic (Ivana) is a board-certified gastroenterologist, but one with sophisticated training to perform delicate endoscopic procedures to remove cancers and cancerous lesions, among other procedures. What I found remarkable is her sense of humor about life and her ability to connect on a human level while maintaining a deeply respectable bearing as a physician. Part of that is natural—you just want to hang out with her, but part of it comes from growing up with parents who were also physicians, and always included her in their work. Her dad was an obstetrician and often took little Ivana with him to emergencies, if her mom was also working. He would give her slides to look at to occupy her time. Ivana was looking at bacteria under a microscope at five-years old, and fascinated by it.

Her upbringing is interesting in that Malcolm Gladwell, "Outliers" way, in that Ivana was exposed throughout her life to the concepts of medicine as well as equal footing among the genders. It was simply normal for men and women to work in every profession. She still doesn't 'get' the idea that there would be roles for men or qualifications based on gender.

It doesn't make sense to her.

Ivana grew up in Belgrade, a large city on the Danube and Sava rivers, a city of braided cultures. To study Belgrade is to study the history of religion and empires. It is a city that has known dictators, communism, uprising, sieges and NATO aerial assaults. Belgrade has been destroyed and rebuilt some forty times.

It is a city, Ivana explains, "that is always re-starting. It has been very difficult for one generation to build upon the last and improve it for the next." Though she brought from that environment an inclination to see people for their capacity and not their gender, she also brought along her dreams. It seems she has found the ideal place to see them come true.

It wasn't easy. Thanks to relentless determination and a keen mind, Ivana landed enough scholarship money to pay for an education and worked side jobs at night in bars and restaurants to live.

This was the nineties. You may recall the break up of the Balkans, the wars in Serbia and Kosovo; Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bombings. Her parents were living through it all and barely surviving; certainly there was no money to pay for medical school in the US.

Ivana first lived in a small town in Wisconsin, "where you could buy cheese and guns in the same store." Welcome to America. She later lived in Missouri, stunned to discover cowboys still existed and weren't just the stuff of American movie folklore. "Living in the US gives you immense security and so gives you an amazing freedom to think and plan." This perspective can only come from a backdrop of hardship. It's why some Americans undervalue it. Ivana bears a strong sense of social justice, evident in her voice as she describes the multitude of fixes she sees for everyday problems or social ills. Her challenge lies in not understanding why others don't see what to her is obvious.

Her ideals are almost a burden. "I rarely look at anything without seeing it improved. It's not that I have visions, but for instance, I look out the window and see how this tree or this garden would be better if changes were made. I see it." This same visionary outlook applies in her perceptions of men and women in the workplace. She believes people should be assessed by what they do first, without regard for gender or standing. "There aren't men and women, there is just a job to be done."

It particularly frustrates her the way pregnant women are regarded her in the States. "There's this idea that women are disabled. You're not disabled, you're pregnant. Give her maternity leave and let her be happy and begin to raise a happy child and when she comes back to work everyone will be better for it. What's the problem?"

Ivana went to medical school in Chicago at Rush where she also interned in surgery. I asked her why she chose gastroenterology and she said, "I'm a happy person. The surgeons were all sleep deprived and miserable. I met someone happy and asked what they do. I then spent some time observing procedures and changed my focus to GI."

Rapid Cognition

Doctor Dzeletovic is married to a cardiologist who has a much more relaxed, methodical, contemplative way of thinking about patients and care. "You want your cardiologist to be calm," she says, "If someone is going into cardiac arrest, you want that cool, calm and collected person there. I think more like a surgeon."

Doctor Dzletovic's brain is agile, almost maddeningly so. She makes decisions rapidly, intuitively, but not without knowledge aforethought.

"You have to have a base. My husband is transfixed by how I am able to make very quick decisions and even more by the fact that I'm usually correct." That sounds cocky, but it's a manner of decision-making that works with her personality and insatiable curiosity.

"I think linearly, always two to three steps out. Before I go into a procedure I already know what I will do if I encounter a particular problem, so when I see it the decision is made in an instant." It's as though everything that's new she's seen before, a kind of deductive prescience that springs from training and experience. With a Lincolnesque philosophy, she says, "You do the best you can with what you have available to optimize your situation."

Education matters. The best learning comes when you when you study what interests you. "I was always fascinated that something microscopic was so perfectly organized. Chemistry was always easy.

I just got it." Her comment reminded me of the scene in Good Will Hunting, where Will says, "I could always just play." 

Ivana is quick witted, quick to be honest and somewhat intuitive in the way she makes decisions. She did her residency at the Mayo School of Graduate Medicine in Arizona. "When I walked into Mayo, I knew immediately, this is where I needed to be." The interview was a formality.

DC

When I met with Doctor Dzeletovic, she had just returned from Washington, DC, where she attended lectures from a one-year course for twenty specially selected women who are future leaders in gastroenterology in America. It's a program for which one must be nominated by her colleagues.

They discussed specific problems related to women. They discussed a common theme, that is, the gap between what women would like to do and what is expected of them. Women can end up in a limbo if they either ignore expectations and do whatever they like, or put aside their own desires in order to fit some ill-defined set of expectations. Most try to find that space in between, but find the middle-ground unfulfilling. Focusing on balance can present a false perception of happiness.

"Some women who are leaders or pioneers find it difficult to say 'no' and so they take on too much of what others want and neglect their own career needs. A lot of women feel they need to be a good mother, a good person at work, a good wife, etc, but it's hard to do it all together. The day is too short."

She said, "It got me thinking that people should stop trying to compare men and women. We are in a transition period of the modification of traditional roles.

It should be about people wanting to do things, without regard to gender."

I get it. Nobody asks Jamie Dimon if he has difficulty balancing his CEO and father roles. Women get that question asked of them, so feel a pressure to have a good answer, which makes them question their lives. It's an existential pressure, sometimes self-imposed, that men don't feel. Ivana Dzeletovic is still working to understand it all, and promises she will. I hope we talk again when she finds a solution, or a least a better way to think about it.

It's not an accident that little Ivana from Belgrade with the quick-solution visions and the zeal for chemical equations, has become a classic American success story. She, like other immigrants, saw opportunity here that is often lost on those born of our unique privilege.

There's something about an immigrant perspective, about coming from a country in a perpetual state of rubble and rebirth that helped her to recognize this as the place where she could apply her strengths to build a lasting future.

She's found her niche, the happy place where she can perform complicated endoscopic procedures and have fun doing it. "I tell people I'm a fake surgeon, because if I say I am a gastroenterologist, they think all I do is screen colons."

Her job and the good doctor, are much more interesting, much more insightful. She is a funny, amiable person. "What's the alternative," she asks?

We need to find a better way for her to describe her profession. I'm going with super hero.

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Joe Hefferon is a writer and retired police captain living in Toms River, New Jersey. He has recently completed a novel, The Unlost, due out in 2015. Hefferon is a regular guest writer and has published a series of articles featuring inspiring women.

He can be reached at hefferon.joe@gmail.com or Twitter: @HefferonJoe