2013 FPOY Works Hard to Lift Up Those Around Him

October 17, 2012 05:55 pm Jessica Pupillo

In this world there are lifters and there are leaners. Thomas Albani, Jr., M.D., believes in lifting up others. It's a value the Youngstown, Ohio, family physician inherited from his father. "There are people that help and people that make life harder," says Albani. "I always felt it was important to be one of those who want to make the world a better place."

For almost 30 years, Albani has been doing just that for his patients, his medical students and an economically hard-hit community.

Because of this service, Albani has been awarded the title of 2013 AAFP Family Physician of the Year. The award honors one outstanding U.S. family physician who provides patients with compassionate and comprehensive care, and who serves as a professional and personal role model in his or her community, to other health professionals, and to residents and medical students.

[2013-FPOY Thomas Albani, Jr., M.D. with patients in lobby]

Thomas Albani, M.D., the 2013 AAFP Family Physician of the Year works hard to find the resources to treat needy patients in Youngstown, Ohio.

Caring for Families

No matter what medical problem or crisis they face, Albani makes his patients' lives better, says Jenise Sacui, a patient and Albani's former nurse.

"We don't know what we would do without Dr. Albani," Sacui says.

Sacui, her husband and her four children have seen Albani for the past 20 years. He's helped her through the diagnosis and management of multiple sclerosis, her husband's heart attacks, her mother's ailing health and death, and life with teenagers.

Not long after Sacui was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Albani recommended a family meeting in his office. "He said, 'You tell me when; I want the whole crew here,'" Sacui recalls. "There we sat. All six of us in the room."

During this meeting, Albani shared information with Sacui's children about her condition and helped the family come up with a plan so that everyone's needs were addressed. "He knew that my disease was affecting them," says Sacui. "You could tell he was watching each of the kids to see their responses, to see if they might need help."

These family meetings are routine in Albani's practice. He schedules them often for patients facing new diagnoses, terminal illnesses or addictions, and for families that are grieving, according to Sacui. He'll even rearrange his schedule to accommodate last-minute meetings and busy family members.

The meetings are time-consuming and rarely reimbursable, but they are central to his care philosophy.

"I feel very strongly that patients are not coming in just to get medications," Albani says. "They want to know what's wrong with them. They want to know how they can make it better. We're here to educate and to walk people through some very difficult times in their lives. It's a very big privilege."

[Thomas Albani, Jr., M.D. walking with wife, Karen]

Albani finds time to enjoy his environment with his wife, Karen.

The Albani Family Meeting

Although he has years of family meetings under his belt, the importance of these meetings was driven home when Albani diagnosed his own son, then 20 years old, with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.

"It turns your whole world upside down," Albani says. It was hard to explain what was happening to his oldest son who was sick, his other children, his wife and his own parents. "Everything I told my patients, it came into play. I felt like I was on target with what I was telling patients," he says.

More than ever, Albani appreciated the simple things people did to lift his spirits, including by providing encouraging words, cards and shoulders to lean on. "I never understood just how much that would touch you when things were rock-bottom," he says.

Today his son is in remission and doing well. "As horrifying as it was, you learn from it. This helped me understand the impact I can have."

Meeting the Needs of the Community

Albani's impact stretches across his community. In addition to his private practice, Albani helped start the Midlothian Free Health Clinic and serves as its medical director. The clinic, which opened in 2008, is run by volunteers who see patients two Thursday evenings each month.

"Youngstown has been hit disproportionately hard with unemployment. There's been a very strong need for this," says Albani. Clinic physicians and volunteer specialists have been able to treat those with complicated medical conditions, such as cancer and heart disease, "There have been a number of lives saved, not because we do anything magical or special, but just because we're there," he says.

Because the demand for care has been so great, Albani helped launch a new assistance program called Access Health Mahoning Valley, a network of providers who treat those who are uninsured or underinsured.

As a member of the board of directors, Albani recruits fellow physicians to volunteer for Access Health, says Amanda Mesmer, executive director of the organization. To recruit physicians, he has invited Mesmer to speak at the Mahoning Valley Medical Society, where he is president. He also sees Access Health patients at the free clinic when space allows.

"He's a really good role model," Mesmer says. "I say all the time that I wish I could just clone him."

Albani's work doesn't stop with patients. He's also committed to training the next generation of family physicians. He's a faculty member at Northeast Ohio Medical University and a volunteer faculty member at St. Elizabeth Hospital Family Medicine Residency.

Although he teaches the fundamentals of family medicine, he's also hoping his students walk away with the right priorities, including lifting up other people. Health care has seen a lot of changes -- increased red tape and government and insurance company involvement, says Albani. "If you focus on the patient and forget all that other stuff, you'll find yourself very, very happy practicing medicine. Your patients will be better off, too."