Mohammed Milhem, MB, BS
Associate Professor of Internal Medicine
What is your hometown?
I am from Earth. Wherever I am, I make my home.
I was born in Kuwait, moved to Jordan as a teenager, and am of Palestinian descent. I never really felt a sense of belonging. Because of these early experiences, I create my home where I am.
When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?
August 3, 2007.
My wife was accepted as a resident in the Psychiatry department. I was not able to join her for six months. I remained in Jordan and helped to build the King Hussein Cancer Center.
I also say that Iowa found me. Cancerous tumors are my focus. At that time, Iowa had no one practicing in my areas. The offer to come here was an opportunity for me to create something.
The two programs I helped set up are in sarcoma and melanoma. I wondered what I could create given the plentiful resources provided to me here.
I have enjoyed my practice and I continue to have opportunities to do more.
How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?
If you are intelligent in my culture, it is expected that you either pursue science or medicine. My father was an engineer and my mother, a teacher. From a cultural perspective, it was an easy choice for me to go into medicine.
Choosing to become a physician occurred during my fellowship years. Remembering back to when I was 12 or 13 years of age, physicians did not share information with their patients or tell them what was occurring. Initially, I did not want to be a physician for that reason.
What interested you to pursue a career in sarcoma and melanoma cancers, and the treatment of patients?
As a medical student I was fascinated by blood, specifically the hematological malignancies. To me studying cancerous cells is studying a biological process. I wondered what was occurring and where the process was going.
During my first year in fellowship, I was expected to do clinical work. Fully committed to the science of blood stem cell research, I choose the sarcoma clinic which required the least amount of my time.
Focusing on sarcoma cancer and treating patients clicked with me. I could continue with my science while seeking to be a good doctor who provides good care.
My earlier experiences with physicians influenced me to be the physician I am today. In my practice today, I strive to build trust with my patients through honesty, humor, and empathy. Because death and dying is very close to me, I try to understand what death may mean for an individual whom I provide care.
Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?
Dr. Brian Samuels, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and now at Idaho, truly helped me to understand sarcoma. He was instrumental in me deciding to build a cancer program in Jordan. I still stay in touch with him.
Dr. Nadim Mahmud, a stem cell biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, taught me two very important lessons. One, that all things are connected. There is a unity of subjects: theology, anatomy, spirituality, physics, etc. By seeing the relationship, you understand the process. And two, first learn to observe. Build the skill of observation. By developing that skill, you will be able to see all information.
How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?
Coming to Iowa, I had the opportunity to grow and to be independent. I was able to pursue my research and to develop my area of clinical care.
The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient-centered care and education?
I am a researcher with the goal of moving science forward. My commitment is to new options and treatment to patients relative to sarcoma and melanoma.
As a teacher, I can impact the physician community. When I am with students, teaching, I am part of a creation. Mentoring students, I hope they learn or understand the value of and realize the knowledge that patients are giving them.
What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?
I have the ability to interact with so many talented people. It is like being on the Internet. I have so many options to seek answers to difficult questions.
A multidisciplinary approach minimizes errors.
Please describe your professional interests.
Epigenetics and treatment modulation.
I am interested in discovering what influences the gene and its expression.
Using less toxic drugs, I want to slow down the metastatic process of sarcoma and melanoma.
What led to your interest in sarcoma and melanoma?
Everyone fears sarcoma and melanoma. That is why I chose the field.
Sarcoma and melanoma cancer are unpredictable. They break all of the rules. You think you have it beat and it shows up in some other place in the body. Its unpredictability attracted me.
How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?
At a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center, there is a tremendous interchange of ideas. I have the opportunity to listen to a great lecturer or speak to a colleague one-on-one. These interchanges can be evolutionary.
Having access to so many experts, I can improve upon my work. I ask for and receive critical analysis.
What are some of your outside interests?
I like to bicycle, go to the gym, or have a nice dinner. Quiet time and good conversation are enjoyable for me, too.
Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?
To be honest with myself and my patients. I ask myself: Did I really spend good time with my patient?
If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine), what would it be?
Everyone would have running water.
What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?
The speed of which information is found.
What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?
Build skills to learn how to access information. Do not depend upon the information you learn today. Learn how to access the information you will need to know in the future.
What do you see as "the future" of medicine?
A better understanding of the process of death. Our fear of death makes it sacred, thus we do not want to understand or discuss it.
In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e., population-based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?
I am involved with Courage Ride. Courage Ride was founded to help those affected with cancer by supporting research for a cure. Proceeds raised are donated to the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
I am also working to establish the Midwest Melanoma Partnership. Fifteen (15) institutions across the Midwest are involved with the goals of:
- Providing excellent patient care
- Creating awareness and education
- Organizing support groups
- Fostering research and science
I have also visited with elementary students and participated in a bicycling fundraiser for diabetes.