Mapping a Mission: Judith Feldman, M.D.
She’s brilliant, funny and has great skin. But, of course, that’s what you would expect from a Southern California dermatologist who cares for the skin of some of your favorite celebrities. However, Dr. Judith Feldman’s rise to the top of her field has not been without a multitude of trials and tribulations.
Born in Nyirbator, Hungary, she was raised by parents who owned a considerable amount of land, a mark of wealth in that part of the world. But in 1956, the Communists began to occupy the country and converted all private ownership in an effort to redistribute resources. Jewish citizens were particularly scrutinized, so as a government employee, a Jew and an anti-Communist, Judith’s father made the decision to move his family out of Hungary. With just a few belongings in tow, Judith, then ten years of age, and her brother, 11, escaped to Vienna with their parents. From there, they were able to make the transition to America more easily with the help of an uncle who had already emigrated a few years prior.
Once in the U.S., the family settled in Maine and then relocated to New Jersey, where Judith spent the remainder of her childhood. She soon learned that she had to overcome a variety of obstacles in order to fit in with her new American peers. Keenly aware of the sacrifices her parents made for the sake of the family, she did her utmost to please them. A brilliant student, she always excelled in math. When she left Hungary, Judith was in the second grade and once in the States, she was placed in the fourth grade, so she never actually completed third grade. Since her math skills were superior to those of her classmates, she was able to choose to take English instead, so she could learn the language.
Judith’s parents did not speak English. Although her father spoke five other languages, he was unable to gain employment in the field in which he was trained without the knowledge or practice of the American tongue, so he became a laborer. “Watching my father struggle with finding work, I realized that I never wanted to be in that position,” Judith said. She decided at a young age that she wanted to be a physician so she could gain autonomy in terms of her ability to properly take care of herself. From that point forward, she focused on her academics and nothing else.
Opting to forgo other interests for the sake of her studies was easy. Since her parents were strict, she was not permitted to date or attend sleepovers with classmates. So instead of displeasing her parents, Judith simply chose to eliminate her social life altogether. But she was unable to extract herself from her internal conflicts. Although she was raised in a sheltered home where the old-school Hungarian culture ruled, her brother was given much more freedom to do whatever he wanted simply because he was male. “I lived in a new country but was under the influence of the old country, so I always felt disadvantaged because I was a girl,” she explained. “My parents wanted me to grow up with the same philosophies and values that they did, but my friends were American and much more free-thinking.”
But wanting to please her parents seemed easier than trying to gain acceptance by her new friends, who did not make allowances for her cultural distinctions. Chasing her goal to be a doctor was another safe and reliable option. And although Judith’s mother encouraged her to pursue medicine, her father felt that this was a profession for men and that his daughter should focus on getting married and having kids.
However, Judith’s independent streak propelled her forward, and without her father’s support she sought scholarships and loans to achieve her academic goals. She was accepted at Delphi, a prominent private college in Long Island and majored in pre-med. Although she finished her undergraduate work in three years, her father chastised her, instead of praising her for her accomplishments, for not being married, even though she was just 22 years of age. But Judith continued to pursue her studies, applied for medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey and was accepted. She couldn’t afford the school and did not have the support of her father, so she worked in the pediatric research lab to earn her way to fulfilling her dream.
In medical school, Judith experienced more anti-female sentiments, which combined with her “disadvantaged because I am female” upbringing, made her that much more determined to be a high-achiever. She had to endure unpleasant experiences, often generated by the faculty. “A couple of professors approached me and wanted sexual favors in trade for good grades or preferred positions,” she recalled. “They took advantage of the young female students.” She was invited to dinner often but never took the bait because she was so focused on her studies. The guys in the program collaborated with each other and generally excluded the females. (Ironically, it was a woman who graduated at the top of that particular class.)
When Judith graduated from medical school in 1974, she was one of eight women in a class of 180. “Gaining a title as an M.D., I not only felt empowered,” she said, “I also realized that I began to gain more respect from men in general.” In addition to securing a medical degree, Judith also met her future husband in medical school, much to her father’s pleasure.
“I was married on a Sunday and graduated from medical school on the following Monday,” she said. “Within 48 hours, I acquired an M.D. after my name and a ‘Mrs.’ before my name.” Her husband started in private practice while Judith started her residency in pediatrics at the Columbia Medical School the day after graduating. She rotated through Roosevelt Hospital located in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, where at the time was filled with crime and disease. “I was often on call 36 hours straight handling horrendous cases,” she explained. (Since her residency, regulations forbid such unreasonable hours void of sleep.)
Her husband practiced obstetrics and gynecology, and she was on pediatric call every other night. Juggling a marriage and a career was more than a challenge. When she finished her pediatric residency, she decided to go a different direction in her medical practice and pursue dermatology. “Dermatology offered everything I wanted: more of a broad range of medical experience that includes surgery, pathology, infectious disease, geriatrics as well as pediatrics,” she said. Judith realized she could help people by giving her patients a diagnosis based upon the condition of their skin. So having completed her three year residency in pediatrics, instead of going into private practice, she entered another three-year residency program in dermatology.
During her dermatology residency, at 29 years of age, Judith was ready to start a family. But because she had endometriosis, she had a great deal of trouble conceiving. Once she finally became pregnant, she was considered by her obstetrician to be an “elderly high-risk primate.” Although she was thrilled to be expecting a child, her attending physicians were not. “The program frowned on residents starting a family since their work is so demanding,” she said. So Judith was unable to take time off during her pregnancy and worked up to the time of her delivery, finishing a shift on Friday and delivering the next Monday. At the time there was no maternity leave, so she was forced to take her vacation time to care for her newborn. “I was never even sick during my time in residency, but I was denied time off after having a baby,” she said. She then hired a nurse to care for her child so that she could complete her residency.
Having finished two residency programs of two different specialties, Judith has become an extensively trained physician who has endured hardship and overcome obstacles in order to achieve her goals. Having experienced profound inequities throughout her life simply because she is female, she has finally come to the conclusion that if men don’t respect her and consider her an equal, then they don’t deserve to be a part of her life. That belief propelled her to seek a divorce from her husband — an event she considers one of the most painful and vicious experiences of her life.
Now in a 15-year romantic relationship with a respectful and loving man, Judith spends her leisure time enjoying her son, David, 29, and daughter, Jessica, 26 and her dogs, Zena and Barney. Her daughter is fortunate to have been raised with a strong work ethic and a value system that propels her to seek her own success as opposed to expecting others to support her even though she’s a female. “She doesn’t have to marry someone with money, she can make the money that she wants,” Judith said. Both David and Jessica live by a paradigm that discounts obstacles, having been raised by a woman who has defied every obstacle that she has faced through her complex and versatile life. And in addition to that, they are also both lucky to have their mother’s great skin.