Hematology & Oncology Consultants
ORLANDO - After being in the same practice for almost 30 years, Lee Zehngebot – hematologist, oncologist, husband, father, road biker and ski-bum – said his “biggest problem is I don’t have enough time and energy to get through a day and do everything I want to do.” But the 63-year-old does the best he can, he said, and the rewards make it worthwhile for all those endeavors.
Zehngebot is a senior partner at Hematology & Oncology Consultants. He went there in 1985 on the advice of a college friend who assured him “Orlando is a great place that’s really opening up,” Zehngebot remembered. “He introduced me to doctors David Smith and Phil Dunn. Dr. Smith is retired now, but Phil is still in the practice,” which now has six physicians, “about 60 or 70” other employees, and a second location in Winter Park, he said.
His specialty has special challenges, Zehngebot said, noting the need to be both emotionally and scientifically supportive. “You have to be constantly talking to people and be sensitive to their needs. On the other hand, you have to be honest with them and provide them with the information they need. It’s a balancing act.”
Zehngebot said he always tries to “do the best job for my patients, despite all the impediments.” Asked to elaborate, Zehngebot’s experience amplifies his candor: “Being a doctor today is an incredibly difficult job. You’re up against insurance companies, getting things authorized and paid for, getting consultations and X-rays done, getting patients admitted to the hospital, getting them out of the hospital, getting them the services and drugs they need. It’s very, very trying,” said Zehngebot. “It’s a very hard job these days and very difficult to do well. It requires a huge team. There’s nothing about (being a physician) that has become easier.”
Zehngebot said physicians are “kind of caught in the middle between the patient who wants the services and a society that doesn’t necessarily want to pay for them. Everyone expects us to have the right answers and be available 24 hours a day. Trying to do that job (every day) is very hard,” he said.
But Zehngebot said fulfillment offsets frustration. “There are two things: First, sometimes people get better and that is incredibly rewarding. And people appreciate what you do,” he said. “Second, there’s the feeling of getting up in the morning and seeking to do something to the best of your ability and getting it done. … I feel like I’m contributing. I don’t always get it right and I don’t always make people happy, but I really try,” he said.
Most days, Zehngebot starts “trying” about 7 a.m. as he makes patient rounds at Florida Hospital, where he also is head of the Cancer Institute’s research department. He’s back at one of his clinics in Orlando or Winter Park about 9 and sees patients until 5-ish, when he does more rounds until about 7 p.m. He said he spends every Thursday, and many weekends, in his role at the Florida Hospital’s Cancer Institute.
His latest focus is on personalized cancer chemotherapy. “Cancer medicine right now is evolving,” said Zehngebot. “We have the ability to do genomic testing, looking for specific gene mutations within the cancer. We can take cancer tissue and send it off and do genomic testing and then find drugs specifically, after the abnormalities are found, and then treat patients with those drugs and see how they respond. That is a project we are just starting to work on here (and) we are hoping will come to fruition. Before, we didn’t have a target. Now the whole thing is targeted therapy,” he explained.
His department at Florida Hospital also is involved in “cooperative group trials that have a lot of detail work,” Zehngebot said. “I am fortunate to have a great team that takes care of that.”
Being a physician consumes most of this time, he said. “I haven’t watched a complete television show in 25 years. All I do is practice medicine, eat, sleep, road bike, ski and go to an occasional movie or show,” he said.
Those casual references to his outside interests should not be underrated. He is deeply involved in road biking. “There is an incredibly vibrant road biking community here. I’ve met a lot of people who have helped me in biking clubs. I work out with a bunch of guys from Winter Springs. We have so many places to go. It’s a great way to exercise,” he said.
One of his motivations for road biking is to stay in shape for his favorite recreational sports passion: Heli-skiing. Twice a year for the past 7 years he has traveled to British Columbia to “ski in places that people normally can’t get to,” he said.
“It’s not the daredevil hobby you may think it is. It’s not about jumping out of helicopters like you see on television. The helicopter lands and then you ski a normal run. The big difference is this is totally untracked powder snow, which is the greatest,” Zehngebot said. “I don’t jump off things. I’m not that good and I really don’t even want to be that good.”
No one else in Zehngebot’s family “is crazy enough to do this with me,” he said. He usually meets a friend and fellow physician who introduced him to the sport. “It’s the only kind of skiing I do any more. I’m spoiled. Once you have done this” nothing compares, he said.
Watching Zehngebot’s high-altitude adventures from afar is his wife Wendy, whom he met at a fraternity function when he was an undergraduate at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and she was at Vassar College. They waited until he graduated in 1976 from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania to get married, mainly because “I didn’t have any money,” Zehngebot laughed. The couple moved to New York City, where Zehngebot completed his internship and residency at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx. A fellowship in hematology and oncology brought them back to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
At first, Zehngebot thought he would follow an academic path. He spent almost three years as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Albany Medical College, but it didn’t work out. “I just hated it. I hated the politics,” he said, and that’s when he set his sights on Orlando.
Along the way, he and Wendy had two children: daughter Corey, an architect works in Boston, and son Jay is a graduate student in computer graphics New York. “I’m very proud of them,” he said.
That parental pride takes on extra meaning when Zehngebot shares that Wendy has struggled with multiple sclerosis most of their 38-year marriage. “She was diagnosed not long after we were married but didn’t become symptomatic until the mid-90s,” he said. “Unfortunately she’s been having a more and more difficult time walking. She has a lot of guts and gets out and does a lot of things. It’s hard, but she’s keeps trucking and getting it done,” he said.
Zehngebot said he has no intention of slowing his pace. “I’ve been very fortunate that I have relatively good health and a very successful practice. And I’m very fortunate that people still want to come see me. I have a great staff and great people to work with. As long as all those things are true, I want to keep working. As long as I have something to offer, I want to keep doing that.”