Identical twin sisters Fania Szlam (left) and Dora Richter were recently recognized by the Georgia Hospital Association for their longtime dedication and service to healthcare. They’ve both worked at Emory Healthcare/Emory University for more than 40 years, and have won many awards during this time. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Twins from Poland grew health careers at Emory

The lives of Dora Richter and Fania Szlam have always intertwined.

The identical twin sisters and best friends are Polish immigrants who resettled in Atlanta in 1969 as 20-year-olds with limited English; from there, they each carved out impressive 40-year-plus healthcare careers at Emory Healthcare/Emory University.

Richter, a registered pharmacist, recently retired as the manager of inpatient pharmacies at Emory University Hospital. Szlam, who has a master’s degree in medical science, is a research lab manager in the hospital’s Department of Anesthesiology.

Over the years, both sisters have been highly praised for their commitment, strong work ethic and attention to detail in their duties. Most recently, they were recognized with the Georgia Hospital Association (GHA) Hospital Hero Award for longtime dedication to their jobs.

GHA President and CEO Earl Rogers called Richter and Szlam “exceptional” and said they “embody selflessness and dedication.”

The award was a surprise to the twins, even though the nomination came from their own daughters, Sarah Szlam and Jenny Tyler. Hospital colleagues sent in letters of recommendation, and the cousins somehow kept everything a secret from their moms.

“It was important to us that they be recognized, even though it’s just a small testament to how incredibly hard-working and dedicated they both are to their work,” said Sarah Szlam, daughter of Fania Szlam.

The sisters personify the close-knit and hard-working image of an immigrant family that had to leave everything behind and start over in a new country. They left Poland with their parents — both Holocaust survivors — and the four of them moved into a Buckhead apartment with not much more than a strong drive to make a better life, said Tyler, daughter of Dora Richter.

Even today, Tyler says, her mother has an unyielding drive and persistence to do things the right way. “When my mom sets her mind to something, she cannot be moved until she has completed the task,” Tyler said.

Richter explains how they happened to settle in Atlanta: “We really didn’t know where to go in the United States, but my dad had met some people who had already come to Atlanta, and they seemed to like it a lot, so we decided to join them.”

Once here, it would take seven years to get their citizenship. In the meantime, college was beckoning. Richter and Szlam have always been naturally curious and loved the sciences. Both started off taking language classes and picked up English quickly.

“We had to learn in a hurry, but, when you’re young, you learn pretty quickly,” said Szlam.

Added Richter, “when you’re put in this situation you do what you have to do.”

The sisters then attended what is now Georgia State University. At the advice of a professor, Richter transferred to the University of Georgia pharmacy school as a scholarship student. She graduated in 1976 and went to work at Emory. Szlam studied biochemistry, got her degree, and began working at Emory Hospital’s anesthesiology lab in 1977. Later, she earned her master’s degree at Emory University while working full-time at the hospital.

Szlam said Emory a great place to work because she loves research. She has participated in multiple clinical studies, co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed publications and trained numerous international and U.S.-educated post-doctoral fellows.

“It makes for a very nice place to work and good people to work with,” Szlam said.

Richter said she also enjoys Emory’s work environment. She has always liked being involved in patient care, working on a team and with policy and procedures.

“I enjoy learning. Emory is a busy place, and you’re constantly learning something new every day,” Richter said.

The sisters, both grandmothers, have been neighbors for more than 30 years, living in the same Gwinnett County subdivision with only a house between them, and carpooling to work. “It makes the time spent driving to Emory and back a little nicer,” Szlam said.

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