HMS of New York Honors Maria Vogiatzi

NEW YORK – Dr. Maria G. Vogiatzi was honored with the fourth annual Mary Kalopothakis Award at the 2014 Distinguished Physician/Scientist Award Symposium of the Hellenic Medical Society of New York on April 30 at the Einhorn Auditorium of Lenox Hill Hospital.

Maria Kalopothaki was the first Greek-American woman to practice medicine in Modern Greece and the Award recognizes the contributions of female physicians and scientists of Hellenic descent.

The guests were welcomed by Dr. Eleni Andreopoulou, Associate Professor of Medicine at Montefiore/Albert Einstein College of Medicine and greetings were also offered by Dr. Stella Lymberis, HMS’s 2nd Vice President, who highlighted the progress made by women in medicine in recent decades.

“In the past women were barred from medicine and now they are on a par [with men],” a fact she illustrated with the story of the struggles and achievements of Dr. Kalopathakis, who fled insults in Greece and had to study at Harvard and in Paris, but who nevertheless returned to make great contributions to her homeland.

The symposium consisted of presentations by Vogiattzi, Nitzia Logothetis, Founder and CEO of the Seleni Institute, and Panagiota Andreopoulou.

Lymberis introduced Vogiatzi, who is Chief of Pediatric Endocrinology and an Associate Attending Physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and Weill-Cornell Medical College.

She gave an overview of the medical, social, and legal issues related to Disorders of Sexual Development (DSD), with an emphasis on the difficulties faced by families after childbirth and by the children later in life.

The point of Vogiatzi’s lecture with the provocative title of lecture “What makes a girl or a boy; is there room for a third gender,” was to warn against pre-mature decisions regarding reconstructive surgery in attempts to establish a particular gender identity.

The challenge for parents and physicians begins with the first question they are asked: “is it a boy or a girl.”

The fact is that for a certain percentage of births, gender is indeterminate, but the matter is even more complex because some conditions will cause physical changes in the genitalia over time – as is illustrated in Jeffrey Eugenides’ book “Middlesex,” while the effect of sex hormones on the brain can undo emotionally the decisions of parents and doctors about what to do physically.

Vogiatzi emphasized the importance of counselling for the parents and for more research about both the medical and psychological dimensions of the issues.

In cases where reconstructive surgery is an option – to provide a baby with either male or female genitalia – the operations typically take place six months after birth, when gender assignment can only be implied. She said gender is not in fact known until an individual achieves a particular level of psychological development and self-awareness.

The ultimate price for a wrong bet by physicians and parents is the subject of the surgery – Dr. Vogiatzi described one tragic case that led to suicide.

For that reason, countries like Australia and Germany have already passed laws permitting gender to be marked as intersex or indeterminate.

One of the reasons for this is to facilitate deferment of reconstructive surgery “but no one knows yet the impact yet of raising a child as intersex,” she said.

Logothetis, a trained psychotherapist with a professional interest in maternal mental health, gave an overview of the pioneering Institute she co-founded with her husband Nick Logothetis which seeks to transform mental health and concepts of wellness for women. Among the health issues the institute addresses are post-partem depression and depression in general, which Logothetis noted is the second leading cause of workplace disability for women.

She emphasized that much women’s suffering “is still shrouded in silence and stigma.”

Relying on the combined wisdom and experience of an extraordinary team, and though bringing together women who are struggling alone with their condition, the Institute is effecting a shift in women’s experience “ from feeling different and ashamed to feeling normal and supported.”

The final presentation was made by Dr. Panagiota Andreopoulou, Attending Endocrinologist in the Department of Medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery and Asst. Prof. of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. She was introduced by the Emcee, Dr. Eleni Andreopoulou, who praised her sister’s “passion for medicine, intellectual curiosity and sense of mission.”

The topic was “Spotlight on Vitamin D” and Andreopoulou summarized the latest research on the importance of vitamin D, especially for women, including its impact on osteoporosis and neuromuscular function.

The event concluded with greetings from Dr. George Liakeas, the 2nd Vice President, on behalf of HMS President Nicholas Mezitis, who was unable to attend. He emphasized the commitment of HMS’s officers to helping the organization evolve from the “old boys club” some perceive it to be, to a more inclusive and younger movement.