By: Mala Niverthi, Milind Mukkamala, Ashay Bongirwar, Neha Koganti, The GTF Group.
We are High School students in the Atlanta area and are members of Global Thrombosis Forum, otherwise known as GTF, which is an affiliate of the North American Thrombosis Forum. Our primary mission is to spread awareness of Thrombosis. The young volunteers in our organizations work to publish and present our research, and we plan events to communicate our knowledge of Thrombosis to our community.
Steve Ober, MD
Dr. Ober was born to a middle-class family in Massachusetts in 1959, and was the oldest of three children. Ever since he was 5 years old, Dr. Ober has been battling countless chronic diseases and illnesses throughout his life. He was accepted into the Boston University School of Medicine and had his sights on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. However, reality quickly set in when he realized that because of his leg condition(s), it was near impossible for him to become an orthopedic surgeon, and he instead completed his MBA at Harvard University, where shortly after, he began to work for several healthcare companies, and even founded his own healthcare data company, Synergy Health Care. Since then, he co-founded the Boston University MD/MBA dual degree program where 60 students have enrolled since its founding in 2006. In the last decade, Dr. Ober has unfortunately experienced many chronic conditions, a leg amputation, DVTs, and Guillain-Barre syndrome just to name a few, and is almost fully wheelchair-bound these days. Yet, he is happy as he has ever been and is married with four children.
Purpose of the interview:
The purpose of this interview was to gain a deeper understanding of Dr. Ober’s life and how his medical conditions impacted it. We also wanted to hear about how he managed all of his conditions and the treatments they required. Lastly, we desired to understand how he overcame his challenges throughout his life, and especially how he continued his education through them during his childhood.
Mala: Did you ever feel as though you were missing out on some of your childhood experiences because of these surgeries and medical conditions?
Dr. Ober: The answer is of course. You know what it’s like to be six years old and not be able to get onto the baseball or soccer team. You know what it’s like to sit on the sidelines and be told you can’t be on the field. I have always loved sports, but you have to change your mindset. I decided to start getting into academics. I began to look into different activities for myself, so I started an apple stand. My brother and I picked apples and sold them. First day, we made three dollars. Then we made 12. Then we made 20. This was my drive. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do.
Mala: Did you have any desire to be a part of the medical field prior to your childhood diagnoses and surgeries?
Dr. Ober: Before my surgeries, no. When I was in the hospital, I had two choices: assimilate, accept my fate, and get into the whole treatment or shun it and become miserable. I chose the former. Back in the day, it was tough. I was six years old and I could only see my parents for an hour a day. I decided that I wouldn’t resent it, I would embrace it.
Mala: You started getting into some of those mental setbacks as opposed to just the physical ones. Do you mind going more in depth with those mental setbacks throughout your life?
Dr. Ober: God was kind enough to give me Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Guillain-Barre paralytic disease, which left me bound to a wheelchair over the past several years. At some point, it didn’t even seem like that big of a deal. It was like a piece of cake. Don’t let the bastards get you down. This is my philosophy: you do what you do every day because every day is a gift.
Mala: Had you even considered any field other than the medical field up until the moment your mentor suggested the business field?
Dr. Ober: No, I always wanted to be in healthcare because of my early experiences. I decided to stay in healthcare, but I needed to tweak the model, so I decided to start companies in various healthcare fields. Then I started consulting, which I still do today, to a lot of companies in the healthcare field. I use my medical and personal knowledge for that. Everyone thinks healthcare is just about doctors who walk into a room, see a patient, write the prescription, and leave. There are so many other things you can do with the right knowledge of healthcare.
Mala: One of the things I noticed in your resume was that you founded Synergy Health Care and became an entrepreneur. Did that teach you anything or change your outlook on anything?
Dr. Ober: Yes, of course. I woke up one day and said, “I can’t be a surgeon anymore.” Then I decided that a business in healthcare might be kind of appropriate, but I didn’t have any education in business. I went back and got my MBA at Harvard and started this company. Where did Synergy come from? Well, I was sitting at home one night and began to create a list of what I was passionate about. I always had this passion about knowledge because more knowledge is powerful in healthcare. I visited a venture capitalist in Boston and he ended up investing in my vision. I took a lot of his advice, and for the first year, I was doing analytics in big pharmaceutical companies. I would provide data to these companies like Pfizer. Then, I hired some students from the Boston University Statistics Department to help me with data. All these projects were expensive, and I needed more data. I came across Claims Clearinghouses which process insurance and healthcare data and requested access to some of that information. This is before the internet and everything. I was able to put together some models looking at different conditions and found more information on costs of care, treatment, and more. From there, I built the company. I began to find patients for clinical trials who met all the criteria and provided companies with these lists. One of these companies, Quintiles, ended up buying Synergy, and I ended up running their clinical analytics division for a long time. Then I branched out again and did more analytical work. Use the opportunities that are presented to you, and do something with them. You’d be surprised by how many people will take my cold-calls seriously. Your head has to be in the right place. Have the drive and persona and fortitude to put yourself out there.
Neha: How did you continue your education and go to school during all of your surgeries, especially in your childhood? Were you homeschooled?
Dr. Ober: Yes. I was homeschooled, quite a bit actually. I just had the luck to have engaging parents to make sure I was homeschooled. I did have one year off during college. But in the formative years of high school, I always had a tutor who would come in, and I would be in my hospital bed in the middle of the living room. It worked out well. I had some good tutors, and I think there are still some good tutors out there; I think it’s even better today.
Neha: Did you make any lifestyle changes after your diagnoses, and if you did, what were they?
Dr. Ober: Good question! So it depends on what diagnosis. I didn’t make lifestyle changes myself, they were served up to me- no more walking, bound to wheelchairs, etc.. After the lymphoma, I stopped associating with people. And now with COVID, I don’t leave the house anymore since it’s too risky for me. And even a little bit before COVID, I just shied away from social events, etc. I haven’t seen my 85-year-old mom in a year, and it’s been a little bit difficult.
Neha: From reading your story, I learned that you found a mentor, Dr. Richard Santore, in San Diego. Was there anyone or anything else that helped you persevere and remain positive?
Dr. Ober: I’m going to put family aside because my family has always been there. I was fortunate enough, because a lot of families aren’t. They are to a certain extent, but until you walk in someone’s shoes, you sometimes don’t realize the challenge. Yes, I have had several mentors, and I think that role models and mentorship is extremely important; it could come in many forms, and you don’t even realize it. What it takes, though, is to be proactive and pick up the phone; you might find somebody online or listen to a podcast and realize that the person makes a lot of sense. I would say, “don’t be shy.” If I was shy, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I am engaged proactively with many, many people in various forms, many online. Society has trained us all to act a certain way and made us somewhat passive, and not proactive. When you go into an interview, the first thing that you want to do is give a strong handshake. They want to know how you project and be confident through what you say.
Neha: Before you had your amputation in 2014, you realized that your body rejected all the years of orthopedic surgeries. How did you come to this realization?
Dr. Ober: My childhood bone disease became quasi-cancerous, so there was nothing left. The pain was astronomical, and clinically, amputation became the only logical solution. I am an AK (above the knee) amputee. They were able to salvage most of my hip, even though there’s still a lot of quasi-cancerous bone disease in there. I love my wheelchair, and I love my crutches. I can still go into the School of Medicine and see my students and consult. I don’t tell people anything about my condition, and when I roll into a new client’s project, I think they’re taken aback. Don’t ever get mad at people because they’re uneducated on disabilities; instead, engage them. Many people don’t know how to react when they meet people with disabilities.
Neha: How did you manage your problems during COVID, especially during quarantine last year?
Dr. Ober: Online. I don’t know how I made it through college, MBA, and med school without the Internet; this is my lifeline. I just have accessed it in very many ways. It doesn’t bother me; it’s a different platform. I am able to see my family every now and then.
Neha: Did you ever want to give up in terms of reaching your aspiration to become an orthopedic surgeon? And if you did, what caused you to get back on the path and reach your goal?
Dr. Ober: I never became a clinician on the orthopedic side; I had to switch to primary care. You have to be realistic in this. I knew I liked clinical medicine, so I thought I would research the area of clinical medicine in the business world and go ahead and get an MBA. You have to think fast and have your head in the right place and it has to be open; you can’t go in and have any preset notions of A, B, C. I guarantee you will come out with X, Y, Z. And that’s the way I’ve been successful.
Neha: One of the pieces of advice that you mentioned is to never say the words “I can’t.” Were there times that you found this hard to believe in?
Dr. Ober: Everyday. We get down all the time –– I’m down every day. I have dark moments all the time. But I come across someone who really likes me, and maybe there is something around the corner for me; I go from there. Your cup is never half empty; it’s always half full. When you think it’s half-empty, you turn it around and think about it and you would be surprised how quickly that cup fills up.
Ashay: How do you believe medicine and healthcare practices have changed through your life?
Dr. Ober: It is much more evidence-based. Previously physicians were more like cowboys. Now there is not as much trial and error unless you have documentation to prove the treatment. On the tech/innovation front, change has been dramatic. It takes a long time (16 yrs) to get a drug to market. Now you can get fast-track approval from the FDA because innovation is happening so quickly.
Ashay: Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Dr. Ober: Don’t drink so much and don’t sweat the small stuff! We worry and forget about moving forward. You live your life for yourself, have the right attitude and you will do great.
Ashay: What are some of your hobbies now that keep you busy?
Dr. Ober: Eat a lot of cookies. If you don’t laugh, you cry! If you decide you are going to have the best day you will! I do counseling with Boston University MBA students, mentoring them. Internet forums I can contribute to. Talk with family often. Today my project is to do a PowerPoint presentation of videos for an uncle who recently passed. I do that for other events in the family – weddings, births, birthdays.
Milind: What was the worst surgery you experienced and what did it do to benefit you?
Dr. Ober: The day I woke up after leg amputation I didn’t know what to do. Was in ICU after a complicated surgery, had a ton of bleeding, couldn’t see family for a couple of days. I was in PT a couple of days later and saw people who were in a worse condition than me. This showed me that I can handle it. I was kind of down for about 6 months and then bounced back.
Milind: How did Harvard Business School affect you?
Dr. Ober: Business schools make you think outside the box. Medical schools make you memorize a lot of information. Business schools want you to think novel thoughts based on the information they feed you. They don’t want you to come in with preconceived notions. They want you to think more creatively rather than didactically.
Milind: What lessons did you get from operating your own companies such as Synergy?
Dr. Ober: Learned about hiring/firing people, how to get along with people. How do you find the right mix of people you are keeping. You have given your people the space to develop and create something incredible – be open-minded. Maybe someone who has applied for a sales position may be suitable for marketing instead.
Milind: How did you create the Boston University (BU) Program?
Dr. Ober: 15 years ago, I was on the Board of Visitors at BU School of Medicine. This is a group that supports the school in many ways. The Dean called me about developing and running an MD MBA program. We now have over 60 students enrolled or who have graduated from our dual degree program and it’s one of the largest programs of its kind in the country. I like interfacing with the students, engaging and teaching them how to be successful in med – you need to be a leader. Medical school doesn’t do a good job of that.
Milind: How did all of your experiences with surgeries and diseases make you the person you are today?
Dr. Ober: It influenced everything in my life. I remember driving to the hospital after breaking my femur and my mom asked me what I was thinking and I said “I am going to be an orthopedic surgeon” even though I was in so much pain. That laid the groundwork for my whole career. There are lots of things to do in the medical field.
Milind: Fibrous Dysplasia is known as a genetic disease but if there are no genetic disorders do you know how you got it?
Dr. Ober: No, never took the time. This was in the 60s. I had a genetic test that showed me I had the gene for FD. When my children were born I made sure my pediatricians were aware of all my conditions. I asked them to handle all the children delicately during birth. Luckily all children are healthy.
Take-home messages from the interview/conclusions:
The messages we GTF students took home were about Dr. Ober’s perseverance and commitment. No matter what life threw in his way, he always found a way to navigate his struggles through creative problem-solving. Dr. Ober also showed us the importance of positive thinking as he never gave up on his goals in joining the medical field and creating an impact. In addition, we learned the importance of a flexible mindset, as that is one of the primary reasons why Dr. Ober was successful. Finally, as Dr. Ober remarked, “Always remember, when life serves you lemons….make lemonade. When life throws you a curve ball…swing your bat as hard as you can….and above all, delete these 2 words from your personal dictionaries if you even see them appear next to each other “I” “can’t.” The authors firmly believe that they would definitely apply many of Dr. Ober’s teachings in their own lives.
About the Authors:
Mala Niverthi is a rising sophomore at Alpharetta High School. She has a lot of interest in the healthcare sciences, so she would love to pursue a medical career in the future.
Neha Koganti is a rising junior at Woodward Academy. In the future, she would like to pursue a career in the medical/healthcare field.
Ashay Bongirwar is a rising senior at Alpharetta High School. In the future, he would like to pursue a career in the medical/healthcare field.
Milind Mukkamala is a rising junior at Johns Creek High School. In the future, he would like to pursue a career in the business field.