August Physician of the Month: Jennifer Sipos

Jennifer Sipos

We normally select one doctor as The James Physician of the Month. In August, there are two: Jennifer Sipos, MD, and Ernest Mazzaferri. Well, sort of. Let us explain…

When Sipos was a resident interviewing for an endocrinology fellowship in 2001, a guest speaker came to the hospital that she was visiting: Mazzaferri.

“I hadn’t heard of him, but all of the fellows and faculty were very excited about his lecture,” Sipos says, adding that she quickly learned that Mazzaferri (1936-2013) was a world-renowned thyroid cancer specialist and had built that program at The James into a model for other cancer centers.

Sipos was enthralled as she listened to Mazzaferri speak.

“His lecture was amazing and sucked you right in. It was so interesting and got you so excited about what he was talking about and hooked me right then and there on thyroid cancer.”

Sipos had already decided to specialize in endocrinology, intrigued by how “it covers the breadth of the body, so many organs and systems." But after listening to Mazzaferri speak, the former Wake Forest soccer player further dialed down to sub-specialize in thyroid nodules and cancer. After her fellowship, Sipos learned of an opening at the University of Florida, where she’d work with Mazzaferri, who began practicing there after a brief retirement.

“He was my hero in medicine,” she says. “When you talked to him, he made you feel like the most important person in the world, and he was the same way with his patients.”

Sipos landed the job and quickly began learning from her hero.

“Ernie really understood what it meant to be a mentor,” she says. “He was so great about giving me opportunities so I could learn more and make my name more recognizable in the field.”

Mazzaferri retired for good in 2007 and turned over his practice to his protégé. Soon, though, Sipos began looking for a new challenge and received a recruiting call from The James Thyroid Cancer Unit – the very unit Mazzaferri had created years before.

“I know Ernie had a hand in that [recruiting] call,” Sipos says, adding that she wasn’t sure she wanted to move to Columbus. “It’s cold in the winter here, but Ernie encouraged me to take a look and told me I’d be surprised by the city and the hospital, and I was.”

Sipos came to The James in 2008 and has since made her own mark. She serves as the director of the Benign Thyroid Disorders Program while teaching medical school students and seeing patients in clinic. She is also recognized as a world leader in neck ultrasonography with a focus on the use of ultrasound to determine if a nodule in the thyroid is benign or is cancerous and needs to be removed.

“We are using ultrasound in the diagnosis of patients with thyroid cancer and to guide our biopsies, and after surgery, we use it to follow for the reoccurrence of cancer,” Sipos says. “And now I’m using it to look at vocal cord function after surgery and treatment.”

Sipos is also a member of the International Thyroid Nodule Ultrasound Working Group, which is tasked with “creating a universal language and guide to describe the nodules we see on ultrasounds as a way to grade and evaluate their appearance and risk of malignancy. This will help physicians determine whether to biopsy and how often to surveil.”

With her participation in this international group, Sipos is continuing what Mazzaferri started.

“In 1994, Ernie and Sissy Jhiang wrote the seminal paper on how to manage thyroid cancer patients. Their paper set the stage for all of us and now we’re fine-tuning what they discovered,” she says. “Now I’m here at Ohio State and I’m working with Sissy on some research projects. We’re looking at how to reduce salivary gland damage in patients who need radioiodine therapy.”

The impact and influence of Ernie Mazzaferri remains strong at The James, and Sipos is determined to carry on his legacy with patients and with the young doctors she teaches and mentors.

“I still keep in touch with his family, and his son (Ernie Jr.) is a cardiologist at Ohio State,” Sipos says. “I learned so much from Ernie and now I want to pay it forward by creating opportunities for our younger doctors who are hungry and want to take it to the next level. I model what I do from what I learned from Ernie.”