Dr. Melanie Friedlander doesn’t know what drove her to medicine. She just always knew. “I announced one day that I was going to be a doctor,” the New Jersey native recalls. “And when I was in seventh grade, I told my parents that I was going to be a surgeon.”
Today Dr. Friedlander is a general breast and laparoscopic surgeon in practice with the Association of South Bay Surgeons in Torrance, a group affiliated with Torrance Memorial Medical Center. And she is one of the more popular breast surgery specialists serving the South Bay. Perhaps it is because of her caring nature, which stems from two major health events that touched her life. When she was a junior in high school, her father—who had been healthy up to that point—was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Very quickly, he went from being in a neurologist office to pre-op. “We were so scared,” Dr. Friedlander says of her family.
The neurosurgeon assigned to her father’s case was a calming and caring person and explained everything to the family in a way they could understand. He also found a way to personally relate to her father; both men were long-distance runners. Her father never ran races, but his surgeon had. Eleven months after her father’s surgery, he stood at the starting line for his first marathon. His neurosurgeon was there with him.
“This was 1985 and I still get choked up thinking about that,” she says. “He cared that much about my dad.” Her father continued to enjoy marathons until his cancer returned, and he passed away four and a half years later.
This life event confirmed her desire to be in the medical field, and through her father’s experience, she found her model. “It made a huge impression on me.”
Dr. Friedlander began her studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, and after earning her degree in chemistry, went to New Jersey Medical School. She completed two fellowships—Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York and the University of Southern California—focusing on laparoscopic surgery.
Fresh from her fellowships, she joined the Association of South Bay Surgeons, where she practiced under her mentor, Dr. Michael Peter. Because the two had similar styles and skill sets, she inherited a lot of his breast surgery work. “I became the default,” she recalls. “If you couldn’t get Dr. Peter, you could get Dr. Friedlander.”
Breast cancer surgery is a big part of her practice, and it has become a passion for her—even more so after a second major health event.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor,” she says. “At the time I was diagnosed, I was already an established breast cancer surgeon. So it’s not how my practice developed, but I think it’s helpful for the patients sometimes to know their doctor has gone through everything they’re about to go through.”
She was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer and is now 14 years out and doing fine. “I think it’s reassuring [for patients] to see that you can have a serious cancer and be cured of it.”
Dr. Friedlander says being a breast cancer surgeon and a breast cancer patient was both a “blessing and a curse.”
“I was extraordinarily lucky,” she adds, “because from a medical standpoint, I knew everything I needed to know—and that was a huge advantage for me. At the same time, a cancer diagnosis, especially an advanced diagnosis, is extremely scary. That doesn’t change whether you’re a surgeon or a lay person.”
Dr. Friedlander’s personal experiences formed and shaped her as a surgeon. The care she has freely given her patients extends to the hospital as well. Besides serving on medical committees at Torrance Memorial, she also serves on the hospital’s Ambassadors committee.
The Ambassadors, the premier annual support organization for Torrance Memorial, was established in the 1980s to provide critical health services to the residents of the South Bay, explains Judith Gassner, senior director of Development and Principal Gifts for the Torrance Memorial Foundation. Today the group raises funds for the Burn Center, Turpanjian Rehabilitation Services, Hunt Cancer Institute and the Health Education program.
“We’re social, and our events provide an easy and enjoyable way for the community to connect with Torrance Memorial,” Gassner says. “And [the committee highlights] the importance of having excellent health care close to home.”
Gassner asked Dr. Friedlander to join the committee, which is composed of local professionals, volunteers and Foundation Board members. “She is highly respected among her peers, colleagues and patients, takes pride in her work and is a champion for the hospital,” says Gassner. “With Dr. Friedlander’s energy and innovative ideas, I knew she would be a great addition to the Ambassadors committee.”
Dr. Friedlander joined the Ambassadors and began donating money because she thought it was a good thing do. “But mostly,” she says, “I just really love and appreciate the hospital and everything it affords to us as a medical community and also as a patient and a patient’s family. It just feels really good to support the hospital.”
Medical schools don’t teach doctors what it takes to run a hospital, Dr. Friedlander adds. What she has learned at Torrance Memorial is that it takes volunteers and support from the community.
“I am so grateful every time I see one of our volunteers walking around in blue jackets,” she says, “and I know they help keep that machine going. They provide such a phenomenal service to us.”
The thoughtful doctor feels the same about the Ambassadors. “They are in many ways the unsung heroes. As someone who practices in this community, I’m eternally grateful for the support the hospital gets from the community.”
For more information on the Ambassadors’ annual giving program, visit torrancememorial.org/ambassadors or call Judith Gassner at 310-517-4704.
Written by Mary Scott, Photographed by Shane O'Donnell