Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Photographed by Jennifer Carrillo
Sarina Brar Pai, DO, knows whether a woman comes for a screening mammogram,
breast ultrasound or biopsy, she’s likely to feel some fear and
trepidation. Dr. Pai has made it her mission to assure her patients that
along with receiving excellent medical attention, they will be enveloped
in caring arms.
“It just takes a few seconds to put a patient at ease, to empathize
and reassure her,” says Dr. Pai, a breast radiologist and clinical
codirector of the Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Breast Diagnostic Center.
“We as radiologists have the first inter-action with the patient
and may be the first to signal a potential problem,” she says. “As
clinicians, our attitudes influence how our patients react. My message
to patients is: ‘You’ll be taken care of, and you’ll
get through this.’”
Dr. Pai, who joined Torrance Memorial Medical Center in 2011, wanted to
be a doctor since she was a child. As the daughter of highly educated
immigrants from India, she was used to seeing women in strong roles and
had physicians as role models among her extended family. She chose to
earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, which emphasizes whole-body
medicine and preventive care.
In medical school, she fell in love with imaging because she saw it as
cutting-edge medicine. She also liked the collaborative nature of the
discipline. “You’re a doctor’s doctor,” she says.
“Physicians come to you for consultations, and you diagnose patients
alongside them,” she says.
Another factor attracted her to radiology: The field was dominated by males,
and she believed it would benefit from more female representation. “Sometimes
older women are especially excited to have a young female doctor because
that hasn’t been the norm for them,” she says.
Dr. Pai stresses both the female and male physicians at the Breast Diagnostic
Center show sensitivity to their patients because it’s embedded
in the center’s culture. As clinical codirector with Julie P. Sim,
MD, she is pride that the Breast Diagnostic Center provides “the
whole package,” offering some of the most accurate and least invasive
screening and diagnostic procedures available.
“Our technology and doctors are all grade A. They are all experts
in breast imaging and provide expert reads,” she says. “And
we have the best technicians who provide excellent images.”
In addition, Nurse Navigators guide women who need further testing or have
been diagnosed with breast cancer through the process, making appointments
and providing a road map for care. “It can be overwhelming and paralyzing
to figure out what to do next,” says Dr. Pai. “We want to
minimize that burden.”
Dr. Pai joined the Young Physicians and Professionals Alliance (YPPA) at
the invitation of radiologist Heidi Hoffman, MD, one of the group’s
cofounders. “I wanted to support the community and Torrance Memorial
Medical Center,” she said. “YPPA has helped fund wonderful
projects such as the renovation of the maternity, neonatal ICU and pediatric
departments as well as purchasing Nintendo Fun Stations for the Pediatric
& Young Adult Pavilion.”
In addition to raising funds, YPPA hosts dynamic social gatherings and
offers opportunities for personal and professional networking. Dr. Pai
has spoken at the YPPA-sponsored annual Be Your Own Hero breast cancer
awareness event, where participants learn about diagnostic and preventive
care at the Breast Diagnostic Center. They hear inspiring stories about
treatment and comprehensive care provided at the Hunt Cancer Institute.
Dr. Pai loves the idea of empowering physicians and community members
to support the hospital through YPPA.
Dr. Pai says a major priority for the Breast Diagnostic Center is expanding
outreach and access to communities that have been less likely to seek
breast cancer prevention and early detection services. She notes women
who regularly have annual mammograms are less likely to die of breast
cancer. The Breast Diagnostic Center has locations in Torrance, Carson,
Manhattan Beach and Rolling Hills Estates to make screening convenient.
Dr. Pai is alarmed by health disparities among African Americans. While
the breast cancer death rate among White women has fallen 43% since 1980,
it has has only dropped to 23% for Black women. “That figure should
set off alarm bells” among physicians, she says. She believes radiologists
can lead the charge to increase awareness among physicians about the need
to assess breast cancer risk among their Black patients. She and Dr. Sim
developed a flyer for distribution to patients and referring physicians
to raise awareness of this issue. They also speak to doctors’ groups.
The Breast Diagnostic Center screens between 32,000 to 35,000 women annually,
and Dr. Pai wants to grow that number. The center is open on Saturday
mornings and has piloted weekday evening appointments from 6 to 8 p.m.
to make access easier for women unable to take time off during the workday.
“We’re always looking at what’s next, what’s best
for the patient and how we can serve the community,” she says.
When not at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, Dr. Pai enjoys spending time
with her husband, an interventional radiologist, and their 12-year-old
son and 10-year-old daughter. As a lover of art (she says if she weren’t
a doctor, she’d probably be an art historian or museum curator),
she enjoys traveling and introducing her children to art and history.
The family traveled to England and France in 2019, where the children
learned “history galore” and made lifetime memories.
Her patients and colleagues appreciate how Dr. Pai has made breast diagnosis
and patient care into an art.