The Unstoppable Yehudit Abrams
The hi-tech maverick who recently won $360,000 for her early detection breast cancer device is also a convert to Judaism. This is her amazing story.
Standing before a crowd of 5,000 at the We Work Creator Awards this summer in Jerusalem, Yehudit Abrams had reason to be nervous. This moment represented the culmination of many dramatic twists and turns: childhood in a devout Quaker home; Orthodox Jewish conversion; researching ultrasound to support the Mars mission at NASA; mingling with tech elite in Silicon Valley; and conducting medical relief missions around the world.
Standing there under the spotlights, with WeWork's legendary founder Adam Neumann looking on, Yehudit took a deep breath and focused on how breast cancer claims another life every 74 seconds.
Yehudit said a prayer and launched into the pitch for MonitHer, the first at-home, hand-held monitor for early detection of breast cancer. With a combination of engineering and medical expertise, fierce entrepreneurial spirit, and unstoppable energy and passion, Yehudit described her vision to revolutionize one of modern medicine's most perplexing challenges.
Minutes later, Yehudit was awarded first prize of $360,000.
Idaho and TM
Born Holley Abrams in Boise, Idaho, the road to here has been complex, dramatic, and deeply inspiring.
"I grew up in a family of cowboys and ranchers, raised as a devout Quaker," Yehudit tells Aish.com near her office in downtown Jerusalem. "My mom is very spiritual, and talking to God is something instilled in me from an early age. If an ambulance drives by, we'd say, 'Please God, take care of this person and let them not suffer'."
A precocious and razor-sharp child, Yehudit was encouraged to explore the worlds of music, science and adventure. Yet when it came to religion, she was taught "not to question."
I was born questioning.
"The problem is, I was born questioning," Yehudit says. "As a Christian, it didn't make sense to me that man could be God. It also didn't make sense that because someone died, I'd go to heaven. Nor did it make sense that God is divided into three entities, since by definition a First Cause can't have a split beginning."
By age 10, Yehudit began studying other religions like Daoism and Buddhism. She eventually settled on Transcendental Meditation – connecting with a local instructor and meditating diligently throughout junior high and high school.
From a young age, Yehudit was self-reliant. Her parents divorced, leaving a father uninvolved, a mother working two jobs, and a brother off with his friends. "I cooked for myself and grew up fast," she says.
As age 13, Yehudit randomly raised her hand when the school music instructor asked if anyone wanted to play cello. That night she took the instrument home and an unbreakable lifelong bond was formed. She excelled at cello, going on to win statewide solo completions.
Her cello teacher gave her the sheet music for "Kol Nidrei," the solemn prayer that begins Yom Kippur services. "Even before I played it, I sensed something special," Yehudit says. "I stared at the music and it was like the notes were popping off the page. When I played it, every hair on my body stood up straight. I couldn't explain it and I needed to find out its origins."
Yehudit opened the Boise yellow pages and called the local synagogue for the schedule of services. That Friday evening, she dropped in at Boise's legendary synagogue built in 1865, the oldest synagogue building in continuous use west of the Mississippi. Though a tiny congregation with no rabbi, Yehudit was welcomed by a middle-aged lay leader named George, a convert to Judaism and the son of a KKK Wizard in West Virginia. George agreed to answer all of Yehudit's questions and gave her the book, Judaism & Christianity: The Differences.
"I fell in love with the services, the community, and the study" she says. "It felt like home."
Yehudit continued meditating and pursuing a Jewish education. At age 15, she wondered if any Kohanim, descendents of the Jewish priests, lived in Idaho. She flipped open the phone book and found one "Cohen." Reuben Cohen, who happened to live directly across the street.
"It was late in the evening and I went outside, laid down and looked up at the stars," Yehudit says. "I thought about the blessing given to Abraham, and asked God to send someone to teach me more about Judaism."
At that moment, a short, stocky, 78-year-old man emerged to throw out the garbage. "I ran across the street and asked him, 'Are you a kohen?' Reuben stiffened with pride and said, 'Yes, I am a kohen. What else would you like to know?'"
The two stood outside talking till 3 a.m. It was a match made in heaven. Reuben's wife passed away 10 years earlier, leaving him all alone. "He became my best friend and my surrogate father," Yehudit says. "Every day after school, I'd go straight to his house. He was a walking encyclopedia. Every night we'd talk history and politics, and he'd cook me dinner."
Though Reuben had not been to synagogue for 50 years, Yehudit's enthusiasm caught on and they began attending services regularly together.
Conversion and Medical School
In high school, Yehudit decided to become a Jew. Wanting to experience Judaism in the "optimal way, in Israel," she noticed a flyer at the synagogue for Sar-el, the program to volunteer at an army base or hospital. In 1993, one week after high school graduation, 80-year-old Reuben and 17-year-old Yehudit set off together to Israel.
After six weeks, Reuben went home to Idaho and Yehudit stayed, lodging at the Heritage House while looking for a conversion program. "I cried on every rabbi's desk and they politely turned me away," she says. "That was God's way of saying: 'How badly do you want to become a Jew?'"
That year, on Yom Kippur, Yehudit attended services overlooking the Western Wall. She had since discovered she was born on Yom Kippur, and memories came rushing back of the "Kol Nidrei" sheet music that started this whole journey.
"That day I surrendered everything to God. I asked, with every fiber of my soul: 'I will do your will for the rest of my life. Just help me become a Jew.'"
Life as a Jew felt brighter and more potent. That special feeling has never gone away.
The next day, Rabbi Asher Wade, himself a former Christian pastor, gave Yehudit the phone number of Sharei Bina, a women's seminary in Tzfat. The director, Tova Weingot, warmly accepted Yehudit and pledged to shepherd her through the conversion process. "I studied morning till night, drinking in Torah," she says with an enormous smile.
One year later, Yehudit completed her conversion under Rabbi Avraham Auerbach of Tiberias. "I emerged from the mikveh into a different reality," she says. "Life as a Jew felt brighter and more potent. That special feeling has never gone away."
With one big goal checked off, Yehudit's next priority was pursuing her dream of eventually becoming a doctor. After 6 months of ulpan, her Hebrew was still not at university level, so she moved back to the U.S. and studied mechanical engineering at Oregon State. "There were virtually no women in engineering back then," she says, relishing the role of a maverick. "The entire department had one small women's bathroom – a converted janitor's closet. I saw this as an opportunity to break some norms."
Yehudit solidified her engineering bona fides with internships at HP and Intel, then chose to attend medical school at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in Central Europe, founded 1348. Every summer during medical school, she joined different medical teams – in Guyana, the Czech Republic, the Appalachian Smoky Mountains, rural Idaho, and at Tel Hashomer in Israel.
Her conclusion from these experiences was disheartening. "Treatments were mostly superficial, prescribing a pill but not diagnosing the problem due to the lack of diagnostics," she says. "That's when I began thinking of how to apply engineering to medicine, to create point-of-care diagnostics."
In the NASA "Sandbox"
On a whim during her senior year of medical school, Yehudit applied to Singularity University, an elite technology think tank and business incubator. The 10-week program, held on the NASA campus in California, exposes creative leaders to cutting-edge, exponential technologies, with the goal of creating companies whose target is to impact a billion lives.
Yehudit was accepted to Singularity and awarded a $25,000 scholarship from Google. "It was an incredible summer," she says. "We learned the business side of start-ups, which sparked my entrepreneurial streak. After hanging out with Elon Musk, Larry Page, astronauts and Nobel laureates, my take-away was that we all have greatness within. I can do big things, too. That was an empowering realization."
After hanging out with Elon Musk, Larry Page, astronauts and Nobel laureates, my take-away was that we all have greatness within.
At Singularity, Yehudit became friendly with NASA's chief medical officer. She was hired and "thrown into the sandbox," the building where young engineers collaborate on innovative NASA projects.
Yehudit was put on a NASA team working on medical devices to support astronaut health during space missions. "Because Mars is such a long-duration mission," she says, "you need to identify, diagnose, and treat with the same device. That's the beauty of working at NASA – they set impossible standards and expect you to achieve huge things."
In 2010, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed a quarter-million people, Yehudit went to assist the medical relief teams. She surveyed hospitals and saw patients day and night. Seeing that one of Haiti's main hospitals, servicing 400,000 people, had only one X-ray machine, she began thinking of how to make ultrasound affordable, portable, and easy to use."
Yehudit returned to NASA where she helped develop a futuristic wearable "ultrasound patch," she calls a "body window" that sticks to the body and performs continuous imaging and medical diagnosis – all with low-energy requirements and no physical side effects.
With Yehudit's background in mechanical engineering and medicine, hi-tech connections, and out-of-the-box thinking, the pieces were falling into place for a creative breakthrough in portable ultrasound.
Meanwhile, she still had unfinished business with her medical career and turned her focus to getting a residency. Little did she know of the detour life would take. She had met her husband at NASA, had a baby boy, and soon after divorced. Suddenly, Yehudit was a single mom and her medical career stalled. "I spent the next five years applying for different medical residencies, and every time something else interfered with my plans. I was frustrated at the delay in my plans."
It would, of course, prove a blessing in disguise.
During her time at NASA, Yehudit's cousin – a breast cancer survivor who had discovered the disease through self-exam – was killed in a car accident. That's when Yehudit decided to focus her attention on the early-detection of breast cancer. Being at home with her son, she had time to digest all she had learned over the years, and to begin drafting ideas for monitoring breast health.
Breast cancer can metastasize rapidly, making it critical to detect it at an early stage. "Once the cancer metastasizes, the five-year survival rate can drop from 95% to 23%," she says. Of the 250,000 cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed each year, she says only 60,000 are stage 0 cancers that can be easily cured. "Breast cancer can metastasize in a few months, yet we're screening every one-to-two years. The numbers prove that mammography alone is not detecting it early enough."
Yehudit blames the problem on the limitations of current screening methods. Mammography, she explains, delivers a high rate of false-positives – as many as one in three. "Mammography is not finding aggressive breast cancers early enough, cannot alone reliably image dense breasts, or be used to monitor high-risk women, and cannot differentiate some cancers that may not need treatment from those that do. This causes over-diagnosis and unnecessary biopsies. In the U.S. alone, 20,000 women proactively remove their healthy breasts to avoid living with anxiety and fear. We want to eliminate such unnecessary intervention."
Fortuitously, Yehudit was hired by an ultrasound start up for the next 4.5 years, where she honed her knowledge of ultrasound, skills as a scientist and investigator, and formed scientific relationships that would later be critical to her own start-up. She also learned from the company’s mistakes after they went bankrupt due to poor management.
By this time, Reuben, her surrogate father, had died at age 102. Yehudit's son was of school age, and she felt it was time to move to Israel.
Yehudit wanted to find breast cancer in its earliest state, keeping survival rates above 95%.
In the meantime, Yehudit wrote out her own ideas for a completely novel approach to screening for breast cancer. Instead of screening for cancer, she wanted to monitor health, in order to find breast cancer in its earliest state keeping survival rates above 95%.
She filed a patent for the MonitHer breast health monitoring system in which monthly whole breast ultrasounds are performed in the home in order to detect any breast changes. In the event of any suspicious change, the user sends historical images of the area of the breast in question via secure link to a physician for review. This removes the guessing game for physicians whether or not to perform a biopsy. MonitHer utilizes an FDA-approved software developed by one of her collaborators.
With a bright future in the Holy Land, and after five years at home raising her son, Yehudit saw the move as a perfect opportunity to get her medical career back on track and complete her training in radiology. She applied to a residency lottery in Israel, not knowing which hospital she would get. "My first choice was Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem. It's run according to Jewish law and was my dream hospital from when I was a teenager living in Israel," she says.
Yehudit began 2018 with Aliyah, along with her son and mother, settling in Jerusalem's urban hip neighborhood of Nachla'ot. Incredibly, she was accepted at Shaare Zedek, slated to start her residency in July 2018. In the meantime, she applied to MassChallenge, a prestigious startup accelerator focusing on high-impact, early-stage entrepreneurs. The Israeli branch received over 500 applications from 40 countries, and Yehudit was selected to participate. "This gave me access to advisors, classes, and a space to work out of," she says.
In April 2018, after seeing a notice for the WeWork Awards, Yehudit quickly submitted a "pitch video." Based on the criteria of social impact, ability to scale, and commercial potential, MonitHer was accepted to compete.
The competition pitted MonitHer against endeavors as diverse as organic farming and solar-powered water desalination.
" Moments before going onstage, it all came together. The years of engineering, the inability to return to residency which led to many years of ultrasound research. Nothing had gone my way. But that was not my deal with Hashem. I gave my life to do His will, and now perhaps this was Hashem’s will for me.” Yehudit says. "I looked out at the crowd and realized that of those thousands of people, one in eight women would be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. I knew what I had to do and wasn't nervous anymore. I understood that it's not about me. And I made a commitment: Whatever God wants from me, I'll do. Just show me the way."
The grand finale of the night was the announcement of WeWork's $360,000 first prize. (Adam Neumann the Shabbat-observant Israeli founder of WeWork, is partial to prize money in multiples of 18, Chai.)
As "MonitHer" was announced the winner and as confetti rained down, Yehudit was momentarily stunned. "I sensed my entire life coming together," she says pensively. "God and Torah is the undercurrent of my entire path, how I got to this point today. Those five years of frustration at not getting a residency was God's way of enabling me to stay home and spend lots of quality time with my son."
Beyond this, Yehudit found those years at home allowed her entrepreneurial side to flourish. "Caring for an infant is a wonderful time for creativity," she says. "I had the luxury of developing my ideas, conducting ultrasound research, and making connections with scientists around the world who now support the work I'm doing. Raising a child is a time to be creative, to explore oneself and let God guide you in a direction."
How does Yehudit handle being an anomaly, an Orthodox woman in hi-tech, particularly while wearing a traditional Jewish head-covering?
"Observant women approach me all the time, saying that I am an inspiration. Just as I thrived as a mechanical engineer in a department comprised almost entirely of men, so too, I carry with pride the crown I wear on my head. Covering my hair is an obvious statement to me, that I have my priorities where they belong. I think it conveys the message that I’m a proud Jew, serving God through the technical background He granted me."
Into the Future
After the awards ceremony, Yehudit didn't stick around basking in accolades. She headed straight to the airport for a pre-planned visit of Jewish historical centers in eastern Europe. It was in Uman, at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, that she confronted an enormous quandary:
"My end-goal all these years was to finish my residency. I was scheduled to start residency at my dream hospital the following week. Yet with MonitHer looking so promising, I needed to decide: Should I throw myself 100% into running the company, or should I bring in someone else?"
In Uman, Yehudit got her answer. "I meditated and listened for a still, clear voice. The voice said: 'Go and don't look back.' I had been focused on my medical career, but God had other ideas."
Yehudit flew back to Israel and told the folks at Shaare Zedek she would have to cancel. They were upset, but understanding of her decision.
The WeWork prize money has been earmarked to build a hardware prototype of the actual home breast monitoring device. Experience shows that any medical hardware product requires lots of money and manpower – years of research, plus rigorous clinical studies to obtain FDA approval. Projections are that the product will be available to consumers in three to four years.
In order to focus more on the engineering and medical aspects of development, Yehudit is on the verge of announcing a co-founder, what she describes as "a powerhouse businesswoman who was CEO of a highly successful medical device company."
MonitHer is just getting started, and it appears as if Yehudit is hurtling toward her destiny. In July, MassChallenge Israel selected MonitHer as a top startup of 2018, earning a spot at their prestigious innovation symposium in November. And she is currently competing to get to the WeWork Global Finals at Madison Square Garden in January 2019.
The challenging times are God's way of leading us to something greater.
After years of adventures, including 8 universities on 3 continents, Yehudit is back where she belongs, thankful for the long and winding road. "When you raise yourself alone at age 8, it's obviously very challenging, but it forces you to take charge of who you want to become," she says. "The challenging times are God's way of leading us to something greater."
"We are democratizing early detection by bringing clinical grade diagnostics into the home, enabling the earliest most accurate detection of breast cancer possible.
"This is not about me," Yehudit says with fire in her eyes. "This is saving lives – pikuach nefesh. Every minute, another life can be saved."
היא רופאה, מדענית בנאס"א, גיורת, עולה חדשה (רק 9 חודשים בארץ), גרה בשוק מחנה יהודה, והסטארט-אפ הרפואי הייחודי שלה זכה כעת ביותר ממיליון ש"ח בתחרות היזמים הגדולה של חברת WeWork. ד"ר יהודית אברהמס בפעם הראשונה (וממש לא נראה לי שאחרונה) באולפן טלוויזיה.
Posted by סיון רהב-מאיר on Sunday, July 1, 2018