Blood is Thicker Than Water
William Shomali’s Hematologist’s Journey
William Shomali, MD, clinical assistant professor of hematology, always knew he wanted to be a doctor. As a child growing up in Jordan, it was basically a foregone conclusion. Maybe he was undecided as a toddler, but as soon as high school hit, it was clear that medicine was the choice for him. And medical school in Jordan, similar to the European system, is slightly different from that in the United States, involving an earlier commitment: After high school, students go directly to medical school, where they study for six years, and then they do an extra “rotating internship” before residency. Shomali did an elective in the United States during this time period, and this set him on the path to his work at Stanford as a hematologist and oncologist.
William Shomali, MD, at work as a clinical investigator.
The Journey to Stanford
Shomali returned to the United States after his training was completed, where he did a postdoctoral fellowship at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston under Issam Raad, MD, followed by residency in internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. It was there that his interest in oncology began. “That opened my eyes to a new experience,” Shomali explains, adding that it was specifically the patients he took care of on the oncology wards during his first inpatient rotation that “drew him to the field.”
“Those patients taught me the meaning of hope and how to bravely stand up to the challenges of illness, as I was
diagnosed with a rare muscle disease during my first year of medical school and this experience gave me a new perspective on life,” Shomali says. He stayed an extra year in Cleveland, serving as a chief resident, with an educational goal of reviving physical examination skills and coaching the house staff to deliver high-quality, evidence-based, and cost-conscious care.
After that, Shomali ended up at Stanford for his fellowship, where he met Jason Gotlib, MD, MS, professor of hematology, who quickly became a trusted mentor. “He’s one of the main reasons why I stayed at Stanford,” Shomali says. “He’s been very, very supportive of me and my career development. He taught me the essentials of clinical investigation and how to develop investigator-initiated clinical trials. He’s one of the best clinical investigators in the country, exceptionally kind and approachable, and we continue to work closely together as a team.”
Gotlib remembers meeting Shomali as a fellow on the inpatient leukemia service and describes him as “a voracious and joyful learner.” He adds, “William modeled the aphorism that what you get out of fellowship is what you put in. He quickly earned the respect of our family of hematology colleagues for his work ethic, collegiality, citizenship, and passion for teaching the
gospel of hematology. With William, there’s no ego or need to impress — his big heart and vast medical knowledge are exactly the custodial attributes our leukemia patients need during their cancer journey.”
Shomali also calls himself “very fortunate” to train under Peter Greenberg, MD, professor emeritus of hematology, a world-renowned expert in myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). “We worked closely in the clinic, and his mastery of MDS and joy in evaluating blood smears under the microscope are unparallelled,” Shomali states. He also calls the guidance of Michaela Liedtke, MD, associate professor of hematology, “instrumental” to his knowledge of the complex inpatient care of patients with leukemia. Shomali concludes, “Every faculty member in our division is outstanding, collegial, and always willing to help day or night, and I learn from each and every one of them.”
"Ultimately, a portrait of William Shomali is a portrait of an exceptional doctor at work, balancing clinical, educational, and research goals as well as a young family."
Hope for Blood Cancer Treatment
During his fellowship, Shomali also began to specialize in blood cancers, specifically myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). MPNs are types of blood cancers where there are too many blood cells: white cells, red cells, and/or platelets. This can cause a number of complications, including blood clots and/or bleeding, which can significantly affect a patient’s quality of life and can even progress to acute leukemia. The other type of cancer he specializes in, MDS, causes patients to have too few blood cells, causing anemia, infections, and/or bleeding (and those can progress to acute leukemia, too).
Shomali’s clinical trial work focuses on novel treatment options for patients suffering from these cancers, including targeted therapies. “There’s an unmet need, and we have room to enhance the current standard of care,” he explains. Gotlib has mentored Shomali through this process as well, passing on “the fundamentals of being a clinical trialist,” as he puts it.
A Day in the Life
An extremely busy man, Shomali splits his time among clinical, research, and educational work. He sees patients in both inpatient and outpatient settings, juggling around 15-20 patients a day when on service in the hospital and clinics, working on investigator-initiated clinical trials, and participating in multicenter international trials that involve patients around the globe.
He also helps teach medical students, residents, and fellows. Most of his teaching is done at the bedside, where he passes on “clinical pearls” of wisdom to his students, as well as the scientific evidence and reasoning behind various medical
decisions that he and they make. He calls medical education a “passion” and sees it as part of his own personal mission as well as the larger Stanford mission to pass clinical knowledge on to the next generation.
And of course he doesn’t work alone. On the clinical and research side, he collaborates with many faculty and staff, including a nurse coordinator, study coordinators, and various others who function as a team. “The hematology division is like family,” Shomali states. “We care for and support each other.”
This has held true during difficult times like the pandemic, with its greater shift to telemedicine, and even during the everyday busyness of normal life. Shomali obviously works hard, but also takes time to relax with his family — if you can call it relaxing. He has two young kids, who, he laughs, keep him and his wife “very busy” with trips to the beach and the park (beyond just the normal business of raising them). He also enjoys working in his new garden.
For his part, Gotlib has found that over the years his work with Shomali has progressed beyond their earlier dynamic. As time goes on, he says, “the roles of mentee-mentor have become more blurred, as I continue to learn a ton from William.” And this learning isn’t all medical: “Most importantly,” Gotlib concludes, “I consider William a good friend and have taken great joy in seeing his professional development and watching him and his wife raise two beautiful kids.”
Ultimately, a portrait of William Shomali is a portrait of an exceptional doctor at work, balancing clinical, educational, and research goals as well as a young family. And he’s always looking to the future. “My focus is on being a thorough clinician and investigator,” he says. “I want to help patients find answers in reaching a diagnosis, offer them state-of-the-art treatment on their medical journeys, and advance the standard of care. In hematology/oncology, many times the standard of care is not enough, and we need to improve on that. I want to be a physician who can offer patients novel therapies that change their lives — that’s what drives me every day.”