Martin P. Sandler had belief in the power of commitment and hard work which stemmed from his own experience as a teenager in Zimbabwe, former Rhodesia. When Sandler was 16, his father died from pneumonia, and he began to think about what he was going to do with his life.
“I wasn't a high achiever as a child — I was a cruiser,” Sandler said. He enjoyed playing rugby and cricket, and was very comfortable being in the middle of his class. “My father's death made a huge impact on me — I was just a young kid, but it gave me time to reflect on the fragility of life, and what it all means. I was in the last year of school, and thought — this is not the best I can do. It was time to see what I really could do. I remember starting that last year very clearly and testing myself,” Sandler said. He then graduated at the top of his class.
“Since then, whatever I've done, I've given a full commitment and I've tried to spread that commitment to those around me. I think if you don't commit to doing what you can, the only person you're cheating is yourself,” he said. “I'm sure there are many very successful people, in all walks of life, who never thought they could achieve what they've achieved. And it's not for recognition; it's for getting the most out of what you can do. I don't think you know what you're capable of until you try.”
Although Sandler had a new perspective on life, he never planned out his life — instead he sought to have as wide a horizon as possible. After finishing high school, he set his sights on college and was looking to earn a business degree. But at the last minute, Sandler changed his focus to medicine. He garnered a full scholarship and earned his medical degree at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
“At that time we were in the era of clinical medicine, and the challenge was to sit down at the bedside, take a history, do a physical exam and make a diagnosis. “You had the luxury of being able to follow the course of a disease and see if you were right or wrong. I was fascinated by what people call the art of medicine and became an internist,” Sandler said.
During his residency in South Africa, Sandler set his sights on a different type of challenge — a pretty, blonde medical student that he saw in the hospital cafeteria. Sandler made another full commitment, asking Glynis Sacks to be his wife.
Sandler never predicted he'd go from an internist in Africa to an academic researcher in Nashville, Tenn. And he certainly never predicted he'd go from an endocrinologist to a radiologist. But then again, Sandler tried not to predict where his life would take him.
“It was really by accident that I met one of the co-chiefs of the endocrine department, who was an ex-South African visiting his mother in Johannesburg. He invited me to come over to the U.S. and do a post doc,” Sandler said. The move suited his interests in academics, as well as his conscience.
“Zimbabwe was very unstable — the colonization of Africa was not a good thing. During the period I grew up in there was an attempt to decolonize — a terrorist war from 1966 to 1980, which bled down into South Africa. Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, but that meant a minority of people were abused by the majority, versus a minority abusing a majority. Both were equally unacceptable,” Sandler explained. “This was my primary reason for leaving Africa. Look at the U.S., we have choices here — a freedom of choices that should never be taken for granted. So I left with nothing but a medical degree, but I left with a knowledge that had I stayed, I would have belonged to something I didn't agree with. I never wanted to look back and question my actions.”
For Sandler, getting a start in a new country wasn't easy. Although he had a fellowship, and his wife soon garnered a residency, making ends meet was difficult.
“Martin was working five jobs, moonlighting and basically working all the time,” said Sacks, associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences. “It was difficult, but Martin is an extremely hard worker, and we've had many opportunities open for us.”
There were also some less serious challenges that Sandler faced in adapting to a new environment. Fortunately, Sandler's transition into research went much more smoothly. He enjoyed his time in the lab — an opportunity he hadn't gotten during his education in South Africa. But when Sandler's fellowship came to an end, his curiosity led him to a new beginning in Radiology.
“I was working on tracer kinetics and gluconeogenesis using forearm metabolism, and I became very interested in radioisotopes. I wanted to understand what I was working with, so I got involved with nuclear medicine and radiology,” Sandler said.
Sandler began his Vanderbilt career as a postdoctoral fellow in the Divisions of Endocrinology and Metabolism in 1980, and became a member of the faculty in 1983. Sandler made the switch to Radiology and soon found a new challenge and a new passion — technology.
With James A. Patton, Ph.D., professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences and director of the program in Nuclear Medicine Physics, Sandler developed a new diagnostic technology called functional anatomic mapping, which combines X-rays and injected radioactive tracers to create clearer images of affected tissues deep within the body. Together, Patton and Sandler have moved their technology through the development process and into a business agreement with G.E. Medical Systems. Sandler's drive is derived from his fascination with technology and how it has changed the way physicians practice medicine.
“We're now in the technological era of medicine — you can look inside the body without opening up the body. And these machines are becoming more and more sophisticated — it's like those science fiction movies,” Sandler said. “You can get inside the vessels and flow down them and see where they are blocked; we can scan the body in 15 seconds, and soon in 7 seconds.”
But the technology era isn't the end point for non-invasive medicine, Sandler said. The next era, he said, is the molecular phase, with positron-emission tomography as the first step in bringing molecular technology to the bedside.
“Medicine has completely changed, and it's impossible to run a good hospital without good imaging technology,” Sandler said. “One of my goals has been to bring good technology access and interpretation to the Medical Center.”
He also has served as Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine and Director of the Radiological Sciences Research Laboratory. He served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine since 1998 among other roles. After just 10 years in the radiological sciences, Sandler went from a fellow to the vice-chairman of the department of Radiology and in 2000, he was named chairman. Although Sandler was a bit hesitant to take the position, Harry R. Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs, had full faith that Sandler was up to the task.
The Carol D. and Henry P. Pendergrass Chair in Radiology and Radiological Sciences was bestowed upon Dr. Martin P. Sandler, as professor and chair of department in 2003. Sandler is the second faculty member to hold the title; Dr. C. Leon Partain, professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, was the first. While Sandler didn't end up getting a business degree, he did develop a sense of business over his years of technology development, and he brought this experience to the department.
“I don't look at our department as simply a department of Radiology, I look at it as a business, which has five pillars to it: clinical practice, academic/teaching practice, research, billing and entrepreneurialism,” Sandler said. This approach has paid off, as the department has seen improvement in each area.
“This is a well deserved and significant honor for Dr. Sandler, who in serving just a few short years as chair has established himself as one of the academic leaders in radiology. Martin is a very special leader, who always thinks of not only his department, but of the institution — for our students, house staff and especially for our patients,” said Steven G. Gabbe, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine. “Under his leadership, the Radiology Department has enjoyed great success, both academically and financially, and has used its resources to support the academic mission of the department.”
“Dr. Sandler's leadership has been outstanding, and his understanding of the complexities of modern radiology — its needs, its goals and its future — has been remarkable,” said Jeremy J. Kaye, M.D. It is due to Dr. Sandler's leadership and vision that Vanderbilt has developed into a world-class department. Understanding the many roles of a truly academic department, Dr. Sandler has recruited both an outstanding faculty of clinical radiologists and a very highly respected group of basic scientists.”
Sandler said creating a collegial, productive environment for the members of the department has been fundamental to its success.
“You want people to be their most productive in the environment they work, so they can channel all of their creative energy into their work versus dealing with conflict,” Sandler said. “So we have tried very hard to do this both within the department, as well as in how we relate to our colleagues in other departments, both clinical and basic sciences.”
“He is a very good statesman. His ability to make decisions and work out equitable solutions to problems is one of his strong points, and he doesn't mind addressing an issue, whatever it is,” Patton said. “And he's always willing to sit down and work things out — he doesn't tell you he's too busy or to come back later. He addresses things head on.”
“His frequent comment is 'I work for you. You do not work for me.' This attitude has ensured him of faculty loyalty,” said Max Shaff, M.D., associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences. “He is a chairman who really cares and who devotes his full energy to the fulfillment of his perceived task.”
For Sandler, it goes back to his philosophy that was formed at age 16, to give everything he does a full commitment. While he recognizes the many successes the department has experienced, Sandler still sees many challenges ahead and is, as always, ready to face them head on.
His efforts helped to bring the Radiology Department into the top 10 in NIH funding, to develop a research pathway within the training program for residents, and to improve the core curriculum and training of medical students. Among his professional accomplishments, Sandler has authored eight textbooks, 86-peer reviewed manuscripts and 41 scientific abstracts. Sandler has also helped the department build its reputation throughout the nuclear medicine community. He became president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine in 2006. He has also been recognized as one of America’s Top Doctors.
Sandler had been overseeing all four Vanderbilt hospitals - Vanderbilt University Hospital, the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, the Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. He took over the hospitals and expanded his leadership role to include the Vanderbilt Clinic and all off-campus clinical activities. As an administrator, Sandler is credited with fostering an increased working relationship between management and faculty that has improved results across the board. This year the hospitals will achieve their best bottom line performance in VMC history.
“Martin's contributions to our success in the clinical enterprise over the last several years have been extraordinary,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine and associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “We are deeply in his debt, for his energy and his commitment to the excellence of inpatient care at Vanderbilt.”
In July 2009 and After nearly a decade of working in senior executive administration roles, Sandler returned July 1, 2009 to his role as a Vanderbilt clinician and researcher within the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences where he once again will focus on clinical nuclear medicine.
“This is a rapidly moving field and something I would like to go back to and help develop for cardiac and oncological disorders,” said Sandler, who served as chair of Radiology and Radiological Sciences from 2000-2006. “There is a need for hybrid imaging, in particular for patients with ischemic heart disease, which affects an estimated 14 million people in the U.S."
“We look forward to Dr. Sandler's return to the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences,” said Steve Meranze, M.D., vice chair of the department. “His years of service, both as chair and then as vice chancellor for Hospital Affairs, coupled with his clinical expertise, have been fundamental to the growth of our department. With new and evolving innovations in the field of hybrid imaging, his contributions will continue. “We welcome him back to our team,” Meranze said. This marks a continuation of Martin's long history of service to our department.