Sunday, June 04, 2023

When Deborah Rund was just 12 years old, she announced to her parents that she was going to be a doctor. As a young woman from a religiously observant family, her intentions to pursue this path were met with much resistance. But she was determined, and after graduating from university she enrolled in medical school at Columbia University, beginning a path that would lead her to becoming one of the world’s trailblazers in the study of hematological disorders.

Professor Rund’s intentions were to make Israel her home, so she chose to study hemoglobin disorders which are common in the country. Within two weeks of arriving in Israel from New York, she already had her lab set up at Hadassah Hospital of Hebrew University, fully determined to contribute to this field of study in the Jewish State.

It was 1987 and just about one year earlier, the PCR technique for testing genetic diseases was invented. PCR testing is known widely today for its effectiveness at diagnosing COVID-19. But back in the 1980s, the method was still fairly new. Rund intended to bring this technology to Israel, and she made strides to purchase the country’s first PCR diagnostic machine for her lab at Hadassah Hospital. It took one year for the American company to design the machine that would work on Israeli currency. After the machine arrived, Rund would often have to wait months for reagents to be sent from the United States. “It was like tooth and nail,” she explained.

Rund also encountered much resistance from her own colleagues, who did not have faith in this process, and even ridiculed her methods. But she was dedicated to her research. She often spent Fridays and nights in her lab, sometimes working 14-hour days. After two years of grant writing, research and trial and error, she was able to successfully bring this method of testing to Israel. Today, Israel is producing its own chemical reagents and according to Rund’s estimates, there are approximately 10,000 diagnostic machines around the country, an impressive growth from the one machine she fought for in the late 1980’s.

Thanks to Rund’s contributions, Israel uses PCR as a scientific and clinical diagnostic tool for many diseases, including COVID-19. One of the first diseases Rund was able to detect using this technology is thalassemia, a genetic disorder of the blood that is common among Jews of Sephardic background. Today, those who suffer from the disease are more likely to survive childhood as a result of this diagnostic tool.

In addition to her research initiatives, Rund treated thousands of patients over three decades, forming close relationships with many of them. She attended weddings and other celebrations of many of her patients. Others came to her office with gifts and homemade cake. “I think being a good doctor and taking care of patients was certainly equal if not more important in the end than doing research and being published,” she emphasized.

In 2019, Rund retired after 33 years as senior hematologist and director of plasmapheresis at Hadassah Hospital. But she is still very busy. She works on an artificial intelligence research project in Ichilov Hospital in collaboration with a private startup, which is aimed at assisting medical professionals to read images more effectively. She is also the first non-Brit to serve as a staff member of The British Journal of Hematology. She promotes Israeli innovation in this journal, helping to showcase the impressive contributions of the Jewish State to the field of medicine. She continues to lecture at Israeli universities and mentors students who are entering the field.

Rund has been awarded numerous prizes in recognition of her contributions to the study of hematology, including the Faculty Prize for Excellence in Clinical Teaching from Hebrew University in 2007 and 2013 and the Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize for Science and Medicine in 2020.

Looking back on her illustrious career, Rund knows that she owes much of her success to her stubbornness. “It’s 50 times harder happening here than in Columbia, but this is where I want it to happen. I want Israel to be the one to do it first, and Israel is the one to do it first,” she said. “You will have hundreds of disappointments. You need to be able to think of ‘Plan B’ and not be discouraged…. There is a lot of bouncing back and the country will be better for it.”

Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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