Palwasha Fazli Daftani, MD

Dr. Daftani Takes a Whole-Patient, Preventive Approach to Primary Care

“As a family physician, I want to educate my patients, to help them improve their health and quality of life.”

Dr. Palwasha Daftani always had a love for art as a child, and imagined herself going into fashion design. She declined a spot at a prestigious fashion design high school in the city to attend high school in Queens. That pivotal move put her on a much different trajectory, one that included a medical education program in her senior year of high school. It was there that she discovered her talent for math and science, and her excitement about a career in medicine. She views medicine as a scientific study and its practice as a form of art.

“We got to explore different health professions, and we took trips to local colleges and once to a research lab,” she said. “They taught us scientific techniques and offered fun opportunities to explore and learn about health care careers and how to prepare an educational path to pursue them.I hadn’t had any female role models growing up who were physicians and so I never thought about it. But once I learned more, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I could already imagine myself doing it.”

She got a jump on college classes during her senior year of high school, and went on to earn her biology degree, a medical degree, and a master’s degree in health services administration. She chose family medicine as her specialty because of its comprehensive focus and opportunity for continuity of care.

“In family medicine, we take on a role not just of examining the disease of a patient, but we also explore his or her social and emotional factors,” she said. “It’s a biopsychosocial approach to medicine, and it’s very important in treating patients as a whole.” Dr. Daftani prides herself on being a good listener. “I let my patients talk,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. It also helps to make a better diagnosis when you listen to the full details of their stories.”

The whole-patient focus was one of the aspects that attracted Dr. Daftani to Vanguard Medical Group. “Everyone here works as an advocate for the patient,” she said. “There is also an emphasis on preventive care, which is so important in overall health.”

When she’s not working, Dr. Daftani enjoys spending time with her husband and their three children. She is an avid reader and also enjoys exercising and traveling.

Debora Geller, MD

Allergist Takes a Preventive Approach to Seasonal and Food Allergies, Skin Conditions and Asthma

“Allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. and the most common health issue affecting children; as allergists, there is a lot we can do.”

Dr. Debora Geller has managed the challenges patients face caused by environmental allergies, asthma, atopic dermatitis or eczema, hives and other skin allergies, food allergies, medication allergies and more. “Allergies can severely impact one’s ability to function” she said. “Yet there is a lot we can do to relieve those symptoms—and even prevent them in the future.” Trained in pediatric and adult allergy, asthma and immunology, Dr. Geller has helped countless patients with focused, personalized approaches to manage their allergy symptoms on a daily basis.

Helping others is a calling for Dr. Geller, and has been since she was very young. At just six years of age, she aspired to follow in the footsteps of her pediatrician, a woman who formed a strong connection with her. After medical school, she completed a residency in general pediatrics, then a fellowship in pediatric and adult allergy, asthma and immunology.

Dr. Geller traditionally sees patients who require more intensive allergy care than what is available over-the-counter or by their primary care physicians.  “These may be patients with moderate or severe cases that need a higher level of treatment,” she said. “My goal is to keep them healthy and functioning.”

Dr. Geller chose to work at Vanguard for its preventative and collaborative care approach. She noted, “It makes for better patient care, when the medical team works together with a similar focus.” Dr. Geller’s caring and personalized medical approach has earned her such awards as NJ Monthly Top Doctor, Castle Connolly Top Doctor and the Top Doctor for Children.

When she’s not working, Dr. Geller enjoys traveling and learning about different cultures. She is an athlete and enjoys cycling and skiing. She stays active with her husband, also a physician, and three kids. She has a rescue Shih-Tzu named Sandy.

Simone A. Dougé, MD

Treating the Whole Patient in Family Medicine

“The best doctors go beyond the physical ailments in front of them and get to know the whole patient, where they come from, and what’s important to them.”

Dr. Simone Dougé witnessed the power of a caring physician when she was just a child. At the time, her grandfather was dying from cancer. “I remember vividly the respect that my family had for his doctors,” she said, “and the comfort that they provided him at the time.” It was that early formative experience that inspired her career as a primary care physician.

While she was completing her residency in family medicine, she observed the same caring approach that she remembered. “These were doctors who were treating the whole patient, not just going by the lab numbers,” she said. “They took the time to really listen, to find out who the patient was and what was important to him or her, in addition to treating the patient medically. It made for better quality of life.”

Dr. Dougé completed a residency in primary care and a fellowship in palliative medicine. She brings both areas of specialty to Vanguard, where she treats patients from infants to the elderly.

She prides herself on taking a personalized approach to patient care. Her patients tell her that she’s thorough and really listens. She also takes the time to follow up with a phone call when appropriate. “Over the years, I observed family members who didn’t understand what the doctor prescribed or didn’t get their questions answered,” she said. “That’s why I try my best to give thorough explanations. I want to make sure my patients leave the office feeling empowered and ‘heard.’”

When she’s not working, Dr. Dougé enjoys cooking, baking and exercising, especially high-intensity interval training (HIIT). On her “bucket list” is a trip abroad for a medical mission.

Kristina Conklin, PA-C

Kristina Conklin Builds Relationships for Better Health

“Preventive care is the cornerstone of primary care. As providers, the greatest role that we have is to educate our patients and promote wellness.”

 Kristina Conklin’s first job after college wasn’t the perfect fit. But it was the inspiration for her lifelong calling. “I was working as a medical technologist behind the scenes in a hospital, and I missed the patient interaction,” she says. “I started volunteering on a different floor to be able to talk with patients and realized that’s what I wanted to do.” She applied to a physician assistant program and now enjoys forming those special relationships every day.

From the beginning, Kristina knew she wanted to work in primary care. “I enjoy getting to know my patients, learning about their family life and their challenges, and educating them about wellness. When you build relationships over time, you can provide continuous, comprehensive care. That’s what really draws me in—being able to make a real difference in their health and well-being.”

Kristin inspires confidence with her thorough approach. She takes the time to really listen to her patients and understand their perspective. The dialogue goes both ways; Kristin also spends time explaining her recommendations and educating patients about their illness and preventive care. “I encourage my patients to keep up on their immunizations and exams,” she says. “An asymptomatic patient who might show early warning signs of a disease is a lot easier to effectively treat than someone who is chronically ill.”

When she’s not working, Kristina enjoys spending time with her family. She also enjoys reading, traveling, and playing volleyball.

Peter Heit, MD

Gastroenterology Specialist Peter Heit Gets to the ‘Gut’ of the Problem

“I take an old-fashioned approach to clinical exams. We talk first in my office, and again afterward. It’s a more comfortable encounter and you learn so much more.”

From an early age, Peter Heit knew his future career. In fact, at his sixth-grade graduation, he wrote down that he was going to be a doctor. “Back then, there were not too many outlets for kids who liked the sciences,” he says. “It was research or medicine, and I knew that I wanted to take care of people.”

He received a full scholarship to attend Boston University and got accepted into medical school during his sophomore year. That allowed him to take graduate and undergraduate courses concurrently, and fit in some medical research. He ruled out the other specialties and chose gastroenterology/hepatology because the specialty featured interesting procedures and had the potential to build longstanding patient relationships.

The relationships are especially important to him. “Every visit starts with a conversation in my office,” he says. “I want to make it as comfortable as possible, to allay any concerns and to find out how I can help.” Then he examines the patient in the exam room.  Finally, they meet back in the office to discuss the findings and put together a plan. “Sometimes, we focus on self-management; other times we  recommend procedures or medication. Importantly, this is a plan that evolves over time as part of continuity of care.”

Preventive care, including colonoscopy screening, is a large part of his focus. “I help my patients get past the stigma and embarrassment of this test, and understand how powerful a colonoscopy is in helping them live longer, healthier lives.” In addition, Peter treats the full spectrum of gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, abdominal pains, reflux, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and stress-related gastroenterological issues. “The enteric nervous system is second only to the brain in complexity,” he says, “and so there are quite a number of potential gastrointestinal issues.”

When he’s not working, he enjoys going to the theater with his wife. He also is a skilled clock maker and has made over 100 clocks.

Stern, Alyse, PA-C

Alyse Stern Believes Treating Entire Families Helps Treat Each Individual

“Treating entire families is a special opportunity where you see the whole rather than only part of the picture.”

Alyse Stern started her career in a genetic testing lab, but was not totally fulfilled. “Although the experience was invaluable, I recognized early on that I needed to connect with people, and family medicine would allow me to work directly with patients,” says Alyse. “I wanted to care for whole families. I recognized that individual family members could provide insight and history that would greatly enhance patient and health care provider relationships, and result in improved quality care.”

For over a decade, Alyse has been enjoying the continuity of care and trust that develops between individuals and family members, and their health care providers. She finds it rewarding when her patients refer friends and other family members. “My patients inspire me every day, and for me it’s the icing on the cake when someone comes into the office and asks for me,” she says.

Alyse joined Vanguard in 2004 as a physician assistant and, under the guidance of a medical doctor, provides a variety of services to patients, including annual physicals, wellness checkups, diagnoses, medication management, blood pressure screenings, inoculations and vaccinations.

She’s also a certified Department of Transportation medical examiner, one of the few in New Jersey. This allows her to conduct the detailed physicals required for bus and truck drivers with commercial drivers’ licenses.

When she’s off the clock, Alyse is a busy mom who enjoys cooking, baking and spending time with family and friends.

Smith, Stephanie, MD

Patients Inspire Dr. Smith Every Day

“The best care evolves from trusting relationships built over time.”

Dr. Stephanie Smith chose family medicine because it was “the package deal,” where she had the chance to do it all. “In medical school, we have the opportunity to rotate through each specialty area to see which we like best,” she explains. “I enjoyed every aspect of every rotation, from pediatrics to surgery to OB/GYN.”

Now at Vanguard, she’s developing the trusting relationships with her patients that are the foundation of great medical care. “Perhaps because I’m a woman, I see a lot of female patients,” she notes. “They tell me that they feel more comfortable talking to me about female problems. I really enjoy helping my patients, getting them through crises and making sure they’re doing all they can to stay healthy. It’s what motivates me to come to work every day.”

With a master’s degree in public health, Dr. Smith maintains a strong focus on preventive care and wellness. “Sometimes you’ll be able to prevent something before it becomes a bigger issue,” she says. “A great example is a mammogram. If we can screen more women, we can help catch cancer at its earliest stages.”

Dr. Smith was an All-American athlete growing up, and played soccer while at Columbia. When she’s not working, she enjoys introducing her young children to sports and spending time with her husband and family.

Sivaraju, Kannan, M.D.

Dr. Kannan Sivaraju Makes House Calls for Good Health

“Our Home Care program offers two major advantages to our homebound patients: It gives them the personalized and comprehensive care they need while still being covered under primary care. That means it’s good for their health and for their pocketbooks.”

The first physician in his family, Dr. Kannan Sivaraju had always been interested in health care. When it came time to choose a career, it was a natural step to pursue medicine. He chose internal medicine because it is interesting and challenging.

“It’s very rewarding when you figure out the diagnosis and cure the disease,” he says, “and also help patients improve their quality of life.”

Dr. Sivaraju earned a certification in geriatrics to better understand the unique issues faced by his older patients. He works frequently with patients in the Home Care program, which means he makes house calls. Regular care at home helps patients avoid unnecessary admissions to the emergency room. “These are patients who have difficulty coming to the office,” he says. “They may be elderly and chronically ill. Importantly, we do more than simply see them and prescribe medication. We’re able to perform many of the services typically found in the office, such as blood work and other diagnostic tests, including Doppler ultrasound and echocardiograms.” The team also can refer patients to hospice care, a home health aide service or wound care at home.

Dr. Sivaraju enjoys the autonomy that comes from working in a physician-led practice rather than one dictated by a hospital. “The benefits to the patient are tremendous,” he says. “There are virtually no delays in patient care. Patients or caregivers can get in touch with us through the web portal or via phone. If they need a refill on medication, or if they want to schedule a same-day visit, they can do that easily. We also respond right away to patient messages. We work to deliver high patient satisfaction.”

When he’s not working, Dr. Sivaraju enjoys watching movies or dining out with his family at local restaurants.

Moscato, Michele, DO

Dr. Michele Moscato Puts Patients at Ease with Conversation

“If you can’t talk to your doctor about something that is on your mind, there is a good possibility that something will be overlooked and missed.”

Dr. Michele Moscato wanted a career in the health care field from the time she was very young. “I can remember talking about being a doctor as a child,” says Dr. Moscato. “I had a strong interest in biological sciences and I had support, especially from one of my high school teachers who mentored and encouraged me to see my goal and go for it.”

Family medicine was the specialty area that was the draw for her, which can be partly attributed to a personal event. According to Dr. Moscato, “When a member of my family developed dementia, I saw firsthand the overwhelming challenges my family experienced trying to deal with the treatment and care of our loved one, which was new to all of us. We were initially lost in the woods.” She decided to take from that experience and put herself in a position armed with knowledge so she could offer her patients counsel and direction that would make their health care journey a little easier.

Dr. Moscato completed her residency at Hackensack University Medical Center-Mountainside (now Mountainside/UHMC Hospital) in family medicine. After her residency, she was asked to join the hospital as a faculty physician and assistant director in women’s health. “Women’s health was and remains an interest of mine, but I also like variety, and family medicine allows me to treat all ages and all genders,” she says. “At Vanguard Medical Group, I get the opportunity to do that every day.”

Vanguard is a patient-centered medical home where the patient comes first and the staff takes a team-based approach to provide quality health care. Dr. Moscato notes that one of the most important actions that she takes during every visit is to listen to, and talk with, her patients. Communication is crucial. “Taking that extra time to talk with my patients puts them at ease so they are more apt to open up and share their questions or concerns, and oftentimes the things discussed offer clues to their health,” she says.

In her spare time, Dr. Moscato enjoys traveling with her husband, especially locally to neighboring states. She is an animal lover and finds time to volunteer with animal adoption agencies.

McCarrick, Thomas, MD

Helping People Is Dr. McCarrick’s Primary Motivation

“Sometimes, we use our expertise as primary care physicians to reassure patients. Sometimes, we cure their ailments or ease their pain. Sometimes, we connect them with the resources they need that make a real difference in their quality of life.”

Long before Dr. Thomas McCarrick ever held a stethoscope or peered into the depths of a sore throat, he was a kid in the Bronx who was impressed by a family doctor. It’s what motivated him to go into medicine and, specifically, primary care. “I wanted to be him. I liked science and I liked helping people. I wanted to be able to make a difference, and I saw medicine as the way to do it.”

Today, Dr. McCarrick gets a lot of satisfaction from helping his patients feel better and enjoy a better quality of life. As a family physician, he enjoys the warm feeling he gets taking care of a grandchild and then the grandparents, and maybe the parents too. He also likes the insight into their family health history. It helps him identify health risks.

As he’s gotten older, he’s also completed an additional certification in geriatrics so that he can better understand treatment of older adults. “There are patients whom I’ve cared for, for more than three decades now. I want to continue to keep them as healthy as they can be.” As a result, Dr. McCarrick is a constant presence at area nursing homes. He also spearheaded the nonprofit association Care at Home to bring medical care and other resources to homebound seniors and their caregivers.

On the other end of the spectrum, he’s the school physician for Cedar Grove Public Schools, a responsibility that he shares with Vanguard’s Dr. Robert Gorman. As a result, he’s a regular presence at Cedar Grove High School football games.

Preventive care remains top of mind, even when Dr. McCarrick is treating a patient for a cold or another illness or injury. “There’s a tendency to put it off, or address it once a year in a physical. We just try to keep it top of mind by reminding patients about important screenings or getting that flu shot. People get their air conditioners serviced every year; they get their gutters cleaned. You need to be their partner in health care, and this includes reminding them to get the preventive care they need too.”

One of the founding physicians at Vanguard Medical Group, Dr. McCarrick also serves as chief medical officer and chief informatics officer (view his full biography here). His longstanding interest in the use of information technology and computers in medicine led him to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical informatics. He’s also on the forefront of the new field of clinical informatics, having earned one of the earliest certifications.

When he’s not working, Dr. McCarrick is a self-professed fitness buff. He’s been working out with the same trainer for the past 12 years. He also enjoys ballroom dancing with his wife and spending time with family.

Dr. McCarrick is responsible for founding Care at Home New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to support the homebound and their families and caregivers. To learn more about this organization, please visit the Connections at Home website