by Susan Josephs
Dr. Jennifer Verbesey caught “the surgery bug” during medical school, when she did a rotation involving wound care at Boston’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. “I’d go from room to room getting to know the residents and I loved that I could solve these small, surgical problems,” she recalls.
Determined to become a surgeon, Verbesey eventually gained expertise in complex abdominal surgeries and discovered a passion for saving lives through organ transplants. Today, she stands out as the lone female surgeon in her department at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington D.C. As the director of the hospital’s Living Donor Kidney Transplant Program and the surgical director of the Pediatric Kidney Transplant Program, she specializes in facilitating compatible and incompatible matches between donors and recipients, ensuring the pre- and post-operative health of her patients. She also serves as an Assistant Professor of Surgery at Georgetown University Medical School, where she loves to bring her patients into the classroom and share “their amazing stories.”
“Transplants are a gift of life,” she says. “And there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing recipients who feel better than they’ve felt in years and to work with donors, whom I find to be an incredibly altruistic group of people.”
Crediting her success to several mentors, strong communication skills and an unflagging interest in her work, “where there’s always some new ethical issue to evaluate,” the 45-year-old surgeon spends her days coordinating kidney exchanges with other medical centers, seeing patients and performing surgeries, often multiple times a day. Married to Paul Verbesey and the mother of Alex, 12, and Zoey, 10, she feels grateful that kidney transplants “offer some flexibility, where I’m in surgery at four o'clock in the morning so I can make my daughter’s lacrosse game at 11. I may not sleep much but I try not to miss anything when it comes to my kids,” she says.
"There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing [transplant] recipients who feel better than they’ve felt in years."
Raised in Centereach, N.Y., Verbesey grew up with a strong Jewish cultural identity and was “involved with everything,” including student government and her high school band. “My parents supported anything I was interested in,” she says of her mother, a math teacher, and her father, who taught social studies and coached high school basketball.
At Duke University, Verbesey studied political science and spent her junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which was cut short due to the Persian Gulf War. Interested in multiple career paths including law and Middle East politics, she spent an additional year in Israel on a fellowship for college graduates from the Anna Sobol Levy Foundation before deciding to pursue medicine. “I always had very diverse interests, which is something I now encourage in my students,” she observes.
After completing Harvard Medical School, Verbesey spent 11 years as a resident at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, where she found her most important mentor in Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, a liver and kidney surgeon. “She encouraged me every step of the way and I’ll never forget when she said, ‘I want to do for you what I wished someone had done for me,’’’ she recalls.
Fiercely committed to improving the transplant process both locally and nationally, Verbesey belongs to the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and is currently working on increasing transplant access and education within the African-American community in Washington D.C. “I only hope to become more proficient at what I do,” she says. “And I hope to mentor other female surgical residents in the way that I was mentored.”