Written by John Ferrari | Photographed by Vincent Rios
Looking back over his career, radiation oncologist Thomas Simko, MD, will
tell you he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
That may be true, but it took more than happenstance for Dr. Simko to
make the most of the opportunities he had and to build a legacy over his
42-year tenure with Torrance Memorial Medical Center. It took skill, dedication
to his career and his patients, commitment to Torrance Memorial and—not
least—empathy. Patrons caught up with Dr. Simko soon after his retirement
What originally brought you to medicine and radiation oncology as a specialty?
We’re immigrants. My family was in West Germany after World War II.
My father was a doctor and worked for the U.S. Army. We came to the United
States in 1952 when I was 5, so I guess I’ve always had an appreciation
for being in this country and all the opportunities it afforded.
I majored in biology at UC Riverside, applied to medical school and was
accepted at UC Davis. I started on the path to internal medicine at Huntington
Memorial in Pasadena. In those days, radiation oncology was a fairly unknown
field. I happened to do a rotation with the radiation oncologist at Huntington
Memorial and gravitated toward the combination of treating significant
diseases through the aspects of technology, physics and psychology.
You have to have a sense of empathy and compassion to treat people well
and educate them about their disease at a difficult and vulnerable time
in their lives. This is the career that matched my personality, and I
have not regretted it for one instant.
What brought you to Torrance Memorial?
I went to the University of Washington in Seattle to specialize in radiation
oncology and then moved with the head of the program to UCLA. I spent
the first year out of my residency at Cedars-Sinai and then was recruited
to Torrance Memorial. At that time it was a fairly small hospital but
had potential to become an important community medical center. I’ve
been here ever since.
How has the department developed over time?
I was fortunate enough to stay and lead the department after five years.
The department built itself. It grew naturally, and I had good people
around me. The department had two physicians initially, me and Dr. Daniel
Hovenstine for a long time. Then we hired a third physician, the esteemed
Dr. Thyra Endicott, and more recently Dr. Brian Chang from Yale. In the
last several years we’ve taken on other physicians to create a great
department including nurses and radiation therapists.
What are the department’s capabilities now?
The department has grown at a faster rate—not because the patient
load has grown more quickly but because radiation oncology is much more
advanced than when I started. The complexity of radiation treatment has
increased dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years. Each treatment is
much more detailed and precise. Torrance Memorial has two TrueBeam linear
accelerators—state-of-the-art radiotherapy systems that allow us
to treat tumors very precisely. Without the generosity of the Hunt family
and other key funders like the Henry L. Guenther Foundation, we would
not be able to have all the advanced equipment we have. We can treat about
60 patients each day, and we are one of the busiest departments in Southern
Your commitment to Torrance Memorial has been extensive. As chief of staff,
medical director of Radiation Oncology, member of the hospital Board of
Trustees, president of the Foundation Board and having served on numerous
staff committees, what motivated you to become so involved?
I’ve always felt the desire to give back to the hospital and the
community. Serving on those boards and being a founding member of the
cancer support community was extremely rewarding. You think you’re
giving, but you always get more than you give. Torrance Memorial is a
place with so many high-quality people at every single level across the
board, including the community. When hundreds of people do their best,
amazing things happen.
The tremendous changes and growth I’ve seen in the cancer program
at Torrance Memorial have taken place over 40 years. It does take time
and it does take commitment, but it’s worth it. Due to the leadership
of both the medical and administrative sides of Torrance Memorial, all
have worked hard over the last 20 years to create a collaborative, patient-centric
environment. As a result, we now have a dedicated cancer center. Torrance
Memorial’s CEO Craig Leach has created an atmosphere of collaboration
Looking ahead, what are your plans?
I plan to get bored and then I plan to get unbored. At the moment, I’m
unwinding. I like walking, reading and cooking, so I have things I like
to do. I’m still appreciating the wind-down but I want to give credit
to my wife, Laura, who took care of our family. Without her, I would not
have been able to achieve the success I have had. Her support enabled
me to focus on my clinical work at Torrance Memorial and give back to
the medical center we both believe in. While raising three wonderful daughters,
she also earned two advanced degrees and now teaches at CSU Dominguez
Hills. It’s my turn to support her, part of which is to cook her
wonderful dinners. Beyond that, I’m looking forward to whatever
I’m going to do next with my family and myself.