October 2019 – Ilonka Molano

Ilonka Molano, MD, learned firsthand the difficulties that can result from poor palliative care when her grandfather was diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer and was receiving treatment in the Dominican Republic.

“Medicine (there) is very paternalistic. The doctor decides what you’re going to do and you’re not allowed to question that. Very different from the United States where you need to discuss all of this with the patient because the patient needs to make the decision,” Molano said. When speaking specifically about her grandfather’s situation, Molano says the lack of communication was frustrating. “There were issues of communication. How to tell families is different in the Dominican Republic than it is here and that has definitely marked me and my interest in Palliative Care.”

Molano now devotes part of her time working with the Palliative Care unit, where she counsels and provides support to patients and families facing life-threatening illnesses. Her main task, she says, is to explain the diagnosis and prepare the family for the next steps in treatment.

“As a member of the Palliative Care team, Ilonka manifests a wonderful balance between the highest level of humanistic care and the complex details of disease management. Her eagerness to learn and willingness to be vulnerable makes her an outstanding member of our interprofessional team,” said Timothy Thomsen, MD, director of the Supportive and Palliative Care Program.

useDSC_0313In addition to providing supportive and palliative care, Molano juggles her time between her various roles as an associate program director of the Infectious Diseases Fellowship, assistant professor in Infectious Diseases, and as a mother of two. During her “free time,” Molano is also working to complete a Master’s degree in medical education.

Molano completed medical school at the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo (INTEC), where she began exploring possible topics to base her career on. Infectious diseases fit all her criteria. Molano wanted a subspecialty that would intellectually challenge her as well as allow her to work with multiple organ systems. In 2005, she and her husband, Tahuanty Pena, MD, now-clinical assistant professor in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Occupational Medicine, moved to the United States to pursue their medical interests. Fortunately, they both matched for their residencies and fellowships at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where they lived for nine years and started a family.

“The whole program we studied at was in an inner city, so there were a lot of infectious issues that we saw every day,” Molano said. “I think that really shaped my interest.”

Following the completion of her Infectious Diseases and Geriatric Fellowships, Molano became a stay-at-home mom to Gabriel and Amanda for three years, while Pena finished another fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. During his interview at the University of Iowa, Molano’s training found its way into his conversation.

“It turned out they were looking for somebody with my skills as well. I was approached by (the Division of) Infectious Diseases, and that’s how we both ended up in Iowa,” Molano said. “It’s one of those things where you make all these plans and you don’t really know how things will work out.”

Four years later, Molano’s schedule is packed from morning to night. Although she has never considered herself a researcher, she more than makes up for it with her roles in patient care and education. Depending on the day, Molano works half of her day in the Infectious Diseases outpatient care clinic, seeing patients or supervising other practitioners. The other half of her day Molano spends in her office, completing fellowship program-related work and interacting with fellows.

“Dr. Molano brings an unusual and valuable skill set to her care of patients. Her patients and the trainees with whom she works benefit from her broad and deep expertise,” said Judy Streit, MD, program director of the Infectious Diseases Fellowship.

In order to unwind after work and school every Friday, Molano and Pena take their children out for dinner for a family date night. Molano also enjoys reading romance novels, sewing her own clothes and knitting during her free time. The family also attends the Iowa City Farmer’s Market whenever they can.

“We are enamored with Iowa City. We really never expected to move to Iowa, but now we cannot think of any other place we would rather be,” Molano said.

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