DR. LISA ISSAC, a 30-year Chief of Medical Services at Torrance State Hospital, has three daughters whom all became doctors as well. Pictured are: Veronica Issac, M.D., Erin Issac, DMD, and Lailah Issac, D.O. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)
by Renee P. Aldrich, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Dr. Lisa Saunders Issac has distinguished herself in so many ways.
First, she served 30 years as Chief of Medical Services at Torrance State Hospital, 45 miles east of Pittsburgh—a position she got when she was in her early- to mid-30s; very young for such an appointment.
“I was told that I was one of the youngest to ever hold that position, and the only African American to have held the title,” Dr. Issac told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview.
Also, distinctively she’s been married to the same man for 40 years, Calvin Issac, whose love, devotion, and understanding helped create the home atmosphere conducive to her managing a highly impactful and demanding career, raising three children, and maintaining involvement in extracurricular activities. Those activities include her membership at St. James AME Church on Lincoln Avenue, where both she and daughter, Erin Issac, serve as stewards. Dr. Lisa Issac is current president of the Gateway Medical Society, as well as treasurer of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
“At any time I was not there to fix dinner, my husband could do it and would do it, and that goes for anything else that needed done like laundry and cleaning or taking the girls to their different sports activities; it helps that he is a professional cook so we ate well. Cooking was never a struggle for him,” she said.
There’s another way Dr. Issac has distinguished herself—with a little help from her daughters. (More on that later…)
Now retired, the 65-year-old Monroeville resident’s journey began in Baltimore, Dr. Issac’s birthplace. She lost her mother while she was still an infant. Her father brought her to live in Rankin to be raised by his mother.
Dr. Issac graduated from Rankin High School and attended Michigan State University. Dr. Issac returned to Pittsburgh to attend Pitt’s medical school.
Trying to find a job as a diagnostic radiologist, even after completing a fellowship in nuclear medicine in ultrasound at Mercy Hospital (now UPMC Mercy) was not happening rapidly enough—which was essential because by the time she finished the internship and fellowship, she had two small children.
From Dr. Issac’s beautiful living room which faced the patio and pool, she told the Courier that it was a relative, who was also a physician, that “suggested I take work in a State hospital while waiting for the position I wanted to come along. Before I knew it, I was medical director at Woodville State Hospital’s long-term care unit for three years when the entire hospital closed. Torrance State Hospital replaced it, so I was in the same position for their long-term care also. Torrance phased out its long-term care unit and I was offered the position of Chief of Medical Services.”
She told the Courier that being offered that position at such a young age with limited experience almost made her decline the job. “But I knew that I shouldn’t let fear keep me from it,” Dr. Issac said. “Additionally, by now I felt strongly that it was my calling to participate as an advocate for patients dealing with severe mental issues combined with poor physical health. So often they needed someone who was going to advocate for them; I saw myself as that advocate.”
As Chief of Medical Services at Torrance, it helped Dr. Issac become Chair of the State Pharmacy and Therapeutics committee, as she directed all the pharmacy and therapeutics for the State hospital system.
Torrance State Hospital is one of the six State hospitals operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Torrance’s mission statement is to provide all persons who have serious mental illness, including those with a co-occurring disorder, the opportunity for growth, recovery, and inclusion in their community. This is provided through evidence- and promise-based psychiatric treatment and substance abuse services, and access to the supports and services of their choice, so individuals may enjoy a quality of life that facilitates personal growth and achievement.
It’s safe to say that Dr. Lisa Saunders Issac has made her mark in the medical field. But could she have imagined that her daughters (all three of them) would follow in their mother’s footsteps?
In the NBA, sharpshooter Dell Curry of the ‘90s has two sons that currently play professional basketball in the league—three-time champion Stephen, and Seth. Diana Ross parlayed an outstanding singing career with formidable acting prowess—her daughter, Tracie Ellis Ross, followed in her footsteps with a career in acting (she stars on the ABC sitcom “Black-ish”).
Plenty of children want to be, say, a teacher, just like their mom or dad. Or a professional athlete. Or a doctor.
But how many families have you met that house a mother as a doctor, and all three daughters as doctors, too? For Dr. Lisa Issac, it’s not a fantasy—it’s reality.
“I was always STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) oriented and I encouraged them not to run from the sciences,” Dr. Lisa Issac told the Courier. “We all seemed to end up in that leaning. Veronica and Erin had strong leanings to biology. Lailah and I had chemistry as strong interests. Initially I thought Lailah would go into engineering. It was never a question that they’d all attend college. I didn’t push them to become physicians, but did instill in them that their education was the top priority, they would go to college, and that whatever they did, to be the best they could be in it.”
Veronica Issac, M.D., is 37 years old and a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic, with a sub-specialty in adolescent medicine. She works with young people around depression, eating disorders, and more. Prior to landing in the Buckeye State, she did a three-year fellowship in Colorado. Veronica’s road back east was driven by the desire to be closer to home, and through a mentorship, a position became open in Cleveland and she jumped at it. Veronica attended the University of Maryland as an undergrad and earned her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine.
Dr. Lailah Issac is 35 years old and is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Her primary specialty is physiatry—physical medicine and rehabilitation. She has also done sub-specialty training in sports medicine, and although she lives in Florida, she was in Pittsburgh taking her sports medicine board exams as the Courier interviewed the Issac family for this story. She’s currently team physician and associate professor at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale.
Lailah attended the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad where she played soccer, and went to Ohio University for medical school.
The youngest daughter, Erin Issac, DMD, is a 33-year-old pediatric dentist who has the distinction of owning her own practice in Shadyside, Winning Smiles Pediatric Dental Care, on Ellsworth Avenue. She is also an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine.
“It was a big step, but I literally built my practice from the ground up,” says the dentist whom the kids affectionally call “Dr. Erin.” “Everything from designing the office itself, starting with zero patients, to hiring a staff person. We just celebrated four years.”
After earning her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Maryland, Erin was rewarded with a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. Later, she completed a rigorous residency program at the nationally-ranked UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she earned a certificate in pediatric dentistry.
All three daughters graduated from Gateway High School in Monroeville, where they were all drawn, not unlike their mother, to the sciences—biology, chemistry, etc.—fields that put them on the path to medicine. At the same time, however, they were all proficient in sports, such as soccer, gymnastics, cheerleading and dance. They were even in some competitive aspects of gymnastics. They all agreed that they were well-rounded. Dr. Lisa Issac also made sure her daughters were part of the Girl Scouts program.
The Issacs, this family of science-oriented women, who all ended up in the medical field and whose father and husband was the backbone that created the perfect environment for their energy and the pursuit of their dreams, was undergirded by Dr. Lisa Issac’s own father. It was he who set the stage for learning, as a result of his own penchant for STEM.
The four physicians acknowledge his impact on their lives. “The girls’ grandfather, my dad, Socrates Saunders, deserves a resounding shoutout,” Dr. Lisa Issac said. “He was a brilliant mathematician and scholar in his own right. He held two Ph.D.s from Pitt, two because his first attempt for the Doctorate in Mathematics was denied because Pitt did not allow African Americans to enter the Ph.D. program; so he had to get a Ph.D. in Math Management. It would be a few years, but Pitt did open the program and he went back to complete the Ph.D. in Mathematics.”
Erin recalled her grandfather’s mental stamina, even as he developed dementia. “He had advanced dementia, but if he overheard us struggling with a math problem, he could sit right down and show us the calculation and compute the answer.”
Erin, Lailah and Veronica said they give honor and praise to God for blessing them with a mother who instilled in them, by her actions, the understanding of hard work and giving back, and for sharing a bloodline with a man like their grandfather, Socrates Saunders, who laid the early groundwork for the entire family’s ultimate success.
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