PUNXSUTAWNEY — Many young children dream of growing up and filling the shoes of their mother or father, but it's not always the case that they have the opportunity to do so.
But at Punxsutawney Area Hospital, a familiar name — Dr. Khalaf — has continued on despite the fact that longtime solo radiologist Kamai Khalaf retired earlier this year.
Kamai's son, Omar, who is a homegrown Punxsutawney product, has filled his father's shoes at the hospital, stepping into the position — one that few hospitals have.
Omar — a board-certified radiologist — said in a recent interview that taking over for his father, who practiced for 30 years at the hospital, is quite an honor.
"It's very cool," he said. "Starting any new job is overwhelming with lots of responsibility, especially in the medical field with so much on the line," he said. "But having my father as a resource, with 30 years of experience as a solo radiologist is very helpful. When I would tell people what my father did for all of those years, they looked at me like I was crazy; they said it was a lot for one man to take on.
“When he was here, he added to his responsibilities, as well. It's great to have him as a resource, even in his retirement, and it's easy to have an honest back-and-forth with him. Bouncing things off a colleague is always nice, and it makes it especially nice when you have such a good relationship. My father is my colleague."
At the same time, Khalaf admitted that there is an amount of pressure that comes with taking over for such a well-respected community figure.
"On the flip side, he's my dad, and I know I have a lot to live up to," he said. "I'll do my best. He's prepared me for it, and my training has prepared me for it. But I'll do everything I can to not let down my father or the people in this hospital who have faith in me."
Though the elder Dr. Khalaf no longer resides in Punxsutawney, it was his parents' love for this town while he was here that helped Omar realize the area is one well worth living in.
"My parents still love it here," he said. "My dad was always famous for walking around and reading a book, so people still ask me about that. He became a fixture up here at the hospital, and even though they moved to Washington, D.C., they love to come back and visit. They were always so happy here, and I could always see that. That made it easier for me to come here, as well."
Khalaf's resume speaks for itself: After graduating from PAHS, he attended the University of Michigan for a year before completing a bachelor's of science in foreign language at Georgetown University, where he graduated magna cum laude; he earned his medical doctorate at George Washington School of Medicine in 2006.
In 2007, he spent time at Washington Hospital Center Department of Medicine before spending four years at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhatten in diagnostic radiology.
Then, before joining PAH's medical staff in July, he spent one year working in an MRI fellowship at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Despite all the higher education, though, Khalaf admitted adamantly that it was his education in Punxsutawney that set him up to succeed beyond here.
"I guess I was technically born in Ohio, but I moved here almost immediately after I was born," he said. "I went to elementary school at Mary A. Wilson; I went to junior and senior high here. Up until I was 18, I spent my entire life here. I had a great education at PAHS and had a lot of great teachers.
“I think growing up here prepared me, not only for coming back, but for going out, too. I think growing up in a small town prepares you more for the real world than a lot of people think. A lot of people grow up in the city, and when they get jobs in smaller towns, they're not necessarily prepared for that setting."
Khalaf also said that he felt the time away was necessary to realize how great it would be to come back, though.
"When I was 18, I wanted to get out of here and see some other places, just like lots of kids do," he said. "The years away at college, while I lived in New York City and Washington, D.C., were good for me. They are very big cities and much more diverse, which allowed me to meet and interact with a whole different group of people.
"At the same time, though, I moved to New Hampshire to finish up at Dartmouth, and it was a smaller town. Because I'd grown up here, I was more comfortable there. Life in a smaller area is different. It was a charming place to come back to."
Part of the reason it was nice to come back, Khalaf said, was the opportunity to escape the noise when necessary.
"Around here, I can go out in my backyard, and I'm surrounded by houses, but it's quiet," he said.
Ultimately, though, it was his experiences in this town growing up that led him home.
"I don't look at Punxsutawney as just a small town, but as the community in which I grew up," he said. "At this hospital, I've known some of these doctors my entire life. There are people in this department who picked me up in their arms when I was a child.
“I know the community and the education I received here prepared me for Georgetown. A lot of the preparation came from this hospital, but it all came from this town. Now, I have the opportunity to give back to this community. I couldn't be happier to be back."
As a solo radiologist, Khalaf's day may start out well-scheduled, but there is uncertainty in his schedule, as well, to provide the best service he can to the staff at PAH.
"My description is a bit different," he said. "I get here around 8:30 a.m. or so and usually work until 5 p.m. Sometimes, I'll come back in for a few hours, especially now while I'm catching up with other things. Even if I'm done with work at 5, though, the emergency department is always open doing X-rays through the night, and I always want them to know I'm available to them.
"We do scheduled outpatients, but I'm available and usually close by after those hours. I consider myself a part of the process. I like to interact with patients. It's a 24-hour operation here, and I don't mind that. My dad did it for 30 years, so I learned it well."
While Khalaf admitted that larger hospitals may have some advantages, he also said he knew that a lot of the things that take place at this hospital make it a place that stands out among small hospitals.
"At a lot of the bigger hospitals, everything is going toward residents," he said. "I'm not bashing the education system, as it's where we all start, but the difference is here in Punxsy, I'm a practicing physician, and I'm the one looking at these tests. It's not someone sitting far away. I'm part of the community and I'm invested here. I'm responsible to these patients. So, I'm engaged in the system instead of being detached. It keeps me accountable."
Just as his father blazed the path and brought new developments to PAH, Khalaf went out of his way, knowing he'd be returning here, to take part in some training that would help him add to what the PAH radiology department was already doing — especially in the field of MRI.
"MRI is my specialty," he said. "I did a year fellowship in it, and I tried to tailor it to this environment. I knew we weren't providing MRI reads here, so I did a whole-body MRI fellowship to learn the science and physics of MRI. It's a very complicated modality, but it's an amazing tool."
As the technology of MRI continues to develop, Khalaf said its use can become a safer, more cost-effective tool.
"As the years go by, it'll get faster and cheaper," he said. "And we'll be able to use it with more patients. And most importantly, it doesn't radiate our patients. More and more people are hearing that radiation in excess can be a bad thing, so we're trying to use MRI when we used to use something else, such as a CT or ultrasound."
Areas of focus that Khalaf said can be a benefit to PAH's patients include:
• Prostate MRI — One of the main focuses of his training, Khalaf said this is a service many hospitals can't provide.
• Breast MRIs — In younger patients and ones who have a family history, MRI can help prevent the exposure to radiation that comes with other tests and can supplement scans in patients who have already been diagnosed.
• Abdominal MRI — Khalaf said many abdominal scans take place, and the less radiation presented in these areas the better, with vital organs surrounding it.
• MRIs in young patients — Khalaf said that, along with the anesthesiology department, MRIs for young children help keep their exposure to radiation to a minimum. When possible, he said the hospital can sedate the children, especially ages 1-10 — a process he said is very safe now — to allow them to be still enough for an MRI image to be captured.
Providing these services at PAH is a benefit to the community, Khalaf said.
"If we can keep the patient here, it makes it a more manageable experience for them overall," he said. "We have a wide patient base here, and we see all kinds of diagnoses. There is a great depth of pathology here. I don't know what it is, exactly, about this area, but lots of very interesting diagnoses come through our hospital. I'm glad that I can be a part of the process that helps those patients be treated closer to home."
Khalaf closed by saying he hopes his training — from Mary A. Wilson to Dartmouth — helped prepare him to continue to push the department his father developed into the future of radiology.
"We already do a lot of cool stuff here," he said. "But I hope some of the stuff I bring here can make it an ever-evolving and improving hospital, too. From a radiology perspective, there's nothing we're not doing here, even as a so-called small hospital.
Dad always advocated for them here, and this community doesn't allow this hospital to not be great. People from Punxsy are proud of and care for this hospital. I just hope to continue building on what my father did. And who knows, maybe, one day, my son will come here and fill my shoes."