Washington People: Marilyn Siegel

Pediatric radiologist loves solving puzzles her field presents, but she loves helping patients most of all 

Marilyn Siegel, MD, discusses a vascular ultrasound with sonographer Debbie Reiter at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. (Credit: Robert Boston)

Talk to Marilyn Siegel about her work, and the word “fun” comes up often.

“My husband, who also is a radiologist at Washington University School of Medicine, keeps asking me ‘When are we going to retire?’” said Siegel, MD, a professor of radiology and of pediatrics. “I keep telling him, ‘Not yet. I’m still having fun. Give it a few more years.’”

Siegel points out that her mother, who died five years ago, was 103 and had stayed active until her 100th year. So Siegel feels she has time.

Asked what’s fun about pediatric radiology, Siegel described the puzzle solving required to interpret images, the pleasure of teaching residents, and national and international travel as an expert on pediatric radiology and author of one of the field’s most utilized books.

But talk to her long enough and the real reason she finds so much joy in her work emerges: She loves helping patients.

“We try to remind ourselves in radiology that there’s a face behind every image we take,” she said. “There’s a living, breathing human being behind every image, and we have an opportunity to make their lives better.”

Giving medical school ‘a try’

Siegel was born in St. Louis and grew up in University City. As an undergraduate at Washington University, she earned a degree in biology and a minor in art history in 1965.

She was considering pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate in biology when a cousin in New York who was a doctor suggested she enroll in medical school at the State University of New York’s Brooklyn campus.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try,’” Siegel recalled. “It wasn’t a burning passion at first, but I fell in love with it.”

After an internship in pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a pediatric residency at Cardinal Glennon Hospital and a pediatric oncology fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle, Siegel briefly became a practicing pediatrician. She remembers being awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call from a concerned mother.

“She asked me what the first signs were of a cold,” Siegel recalled. “And I said, ‘Why? Is your child coming down with something?’ And she said, ‘No, I’ve just been sitting up all night wondering about that.’”

That call drove home for her the need for a specialty with a more stable lifestyle.

Back to St. Louis

Siegel — whose maiden name also happens to be Siegel — had never planned to come back to St. Louis.

But radiology had caught her interest, and she knew the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology (MIR) at Washington University had one of the best programs in the nation, so she returned.

Marilyn and Barry Siegel enjoy an elephant ride in Jaipur, India, during their travels. (Credit: Courtesy of M. Siegel)

In fact, she confessed, things worked out quite well. During her time at MIR, she met and married Barry Siegel, MD, currently a professor of radiology and the department’s vice chair for nuclear medicine. For decades, the two have lived in the Central West End. Marilyn walks to work every day.

Siegel’s training at MIR also led to her becoming the first female chief resident in radiology and, later, Mallinckrodt’s first female professor of radiology. She is grateful for the support she and other female and minority faculty received from Ron Evens, MD, then the head of Mallinckrodt.

Siegel eventually decided to combine her experience in pediatrics with her new specialty and became a pediatric radiologist.

“Marilyn has often been the radiologist who introduces new imaging technologies to pediatricians and pediatric radiologists,” Evens said. “She’s one of our best-known faculty, both nationally and internationally.”

Part of that fame stems from the publication of “Pediatric Sonography” in 1990, a guide to the use of ultrasound in pediatric patients. The textbook is in its fourth edition.

For many countries outside of the United States, ultrasound is the first — and, in some cases, the only — option for diagnostic scanning. As a result, Siegel has been invited to speak on this topic all around the world. She has been to South America, the Middle East, the Philippines, the former Soviet Union, China, Australia, Africa and all 50 U.S. states.

Her bucket list of places she hasn’t been to yet and still wants to visit includes Antarctica, the Alaskan glaciers and the Galapagos Islands.

“I’ve been to five of the seven Arab states of the Persian Gulf as the invited lead speaker at imaging conferences, and that’s truly rare for a woman,” she said.

Marilyn and Barry Siegel visit Qutub Minar, a tower of victory built in 1193 in Delhi. (Credit: Courtesy of M. Siegel)

A few years ago, Siegel and her husband were waiting in the Cartagena, Colombia, airport to board a flight home when a group of excited Colombian radiology residents rushed up and begged to take photos with her.

“As they were taking their pictures with me, someone asked Barry, ‘Who is that?’ and he said, ‘That’s my wife. She’s a rock star,’” Siegel recalled. “The nickname stuck. I got introduced as ‘the rock star’ at a recent conference, and I’m regularly signing copies of my book and posing for pictures.

“I don’t understand how this happened, but I’m enjoying it,” she said.

Minimizing radiation doses

Like several of her colleagues at MIR, Siegel saw the value of computed tomography (CT) scans in the technology’s infancy, in the 1970s. Among her roles, she reads imaging studies in the cardiothoracic section of MIR and wrote a book on cardiac CT imaging.

Siegel also is active in research testing new technologies to minimize the radiation exposure children receive from CT scans.

“CT is a great tool, it has changed medicine, changed the way we treat patients and changed patient outcomes,” Siegel said. “We just have to keep the radiation doses at a safe level for children, and I’m investigating some of the incredible technology that has come out in recent years to meet that goal.”

Siegel has written 15 books, 40 books chapters and more than 250 journal articles.

In 2006, she helped found a new tumor-assessment service at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. She and her colleagues review about 3,000 scans of tumors annually for participants enrolled in clinical trials at Siteman. They look for signs that new treatments have affected the tumors.

“Marilyn is incredibly passionate about her work — she only has one speed, and it’s the top gear,” said Robert McKinstry, MD, PhD, a professor of radiology and chief of pediatric radiology. “She is incredibly influential in the field of pediatric radiology, and her expertise is sought after worldwide.”

The key, Siegel said, is to find a way to combine hard work — and having fun.

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