NEW YORK – Eleni and Panagiota (Penny) Andreopoulou, are doctors and professors. Both work at Weill Cornell Medical College. And they happen to be sisters.
Eleni is an oncologist with expertise in breast cancer medicine and works for Weill Cornell Breast Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital, while Panagiota is an endocrinologist.
Beyond their careers, both are actively involved in the Greek-American community, and have been honored by the Hellenic Medical Society of New York, of which Panagiota is vice-president, as well as other Greek-American institutions, such as Leadership 100.
The Andreopoulos family history is a typical one of Greeks who immigrated to the United States to pursue the American dream. Demetrios Andreopoulos was the first of his family to arrive on Ellis Island in 1910, with just ten dollars in his pocket. He returned to Greece after World War II.
During the 1950s, his son Antonios, came to America. In 1967, while vacationing in Greece, he married Georgia Markopoulou. Three weeks after their arranged introduction, they were married.
They returned to New York, where they gave birth to Eleni and Panagiota. After the fall of Greece’s dictatorship, they decided to return to Greece, where the girls were raised. The sisters studied Medicine at the University of Ioannina and the National University of Athens, respectively. After receiving her medical degree in Greece, Eleni completed her residency at St Bartholomew`s Hospital in London, and later trained at the Royal Marsden Hospital/Institute of Cancer Research. She then returned to New York. Panagiota followed a similar path before rejoining her sister.
The Drs. Andreopoulou are proud of their late parents, who did so much for their daughters, and nurtured them with love for Greece and pride for Greek culture. Eleni said that passing the Greek National Exams to get into medical school “was very easy because it was a goal and dream for both our parents for us to receive an education and become useful citizens in society. It was an easy choice, but a difficult goal to reach. Our father was an insightful man, who wanted his daughters to be educated and independent.
“Our parents supported and encouraged our education, but never pressured us about our field of study. They represent the majority of the Greeks who believe that the biggest investment a person can make is in their children’s education.”
Regarding both repatriations, Eleni said they had “a very positive impact on our lives. It contributed to our flexibility and adaptability, two very necessary elements for our professional and personal advancement in this country. Most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to experience and embrace both cultures from either side of the Atlantic and to keep the best of both worlds.”
Panagiota added: “we came to America fully equipped to take advantage of the opportunities for professional and academic distinction.”
IOANNINA AND ATHENS
Student life in Ioannina was quite different than in Athens, Eleni noted. “When I was studying in Ioannina, the library was our point of reference, whereas when Panagiota began her studies in Athens, the development of the Internet played a definitive role in scientific training.” She also stated that Ioannina’s Medical School was a new institution at that time with outstanding professors and scholars, who held post-graduate degrees from abroad and had returned with the vision and positive energy to teach. Free of unionized student bodies, it offered a better opportunity for students to dedicate themselves to their studies zealously.
“At the National University of Athens, strikes and squatting were a common occurrence and an obstacle to those who wished to focus on their studies. The situation was certainly worse after my graduation, reflective of the general state of the country,” Panagiota pointed out. Yet, throughout its 200-year history, it has educated world-renowned doctors such as George Papanicolaou.
She chose endocrinology because “it is a holistic specialization involving all bodily functions, all organs, all systems, whether they produce hormones or are affected by them. New hormones and receptors are discovered every day. It is a fascinating subspecialty of medicine, and my need to examine the patient as an entire organism is what impelled me to choose it.
“Each specialty has its own technological and cognitive revolution. Advancements in endocrinology are comparable to those which contributed to the treatment of cancer and heart disease.”
Eleni noted that even cancer treatment is changing. “Metastatic cancer is treated as a chronic illness. At an advanced stage it may be incurable, but treatments are aimed at prolonging the life of cancer patients, simultaneously improving their quality of life.”
Both sisters are academic physicians and Eleni considers participation in research for the development of new treatments very important. A wonderful feature of academic medicine is that along with providing care to patients, practitioners take a more substantial part in the evolution of medical science. She referenced her academic experience as an assistant professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the largest and most significant anticancer hospital in the world.
There has been much campaigning in recent years regarding the treatment of illnesses. As Panagiota explained, “there is a huge flux of information, but the quality of the information varies from undocumented opinions to scientific websites which patients can refer to. All associations have websites intended for patients.
“We want patients to be informed, but sometimes they are influenced in such a way that they regard the physician with suspicion, and are prejudiced about pharmaceutical companies and treatments. They rely on non-pharmaceutical therapies depending on the disease and that may negatively affect our role.”
Eleni added: “the matter of diet is very important in treating cancer as well. There are many studies showing that nutrition is related to the onset and appearance of cancer. The role of the Mediterranean diet, especially Cretan, has been documented.”
Panagiota said that dietary supplements and vitamins should not be taken without consulting a physician. Generally, if someone maintains a balanced diet containing proteins, low in sugars, with lots of fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants, nuts, eggs, fish, and minimal red meats, then supplements and vitamins are not necessary.”
Having been raised in Greece, the Andreopoulou sisters said they have a better grasp of what is happening in their country with the refugees. They said they are very moved by the humanity displayed toward them by their fellow Greeks, and noted how the situation must be handled with both compassion and realism.
“The national health system in Greece has taken a heavy blow due to the economic crisis and the immigration of doctors, and is not in a position to deal with the needs of thousands of refugees. The Greek-American community must rise to the occasion and take initiatives to sensitize public opinion on the consequences of the economic and refugee crises,” Eleni noted.