My third grade career ambitions were clear: I wanted to be either a "doctor for kids" or a rock star. The choice seemed obvious when I started taking classical violin lessons later that year. My aspirations were further defined during college, when I shadowed a pediatric oncologist in the lab and in the clinic. The research was interesting, but the clinical experience was phenomenal; I never considered any other medical career after that summer.
I also knew I wanted to have a family. I was lucky enough to meet my best friend three months before heading off to medical school, and he has stuck by me ever since. Despite an intense schedule, my husband has been the cornerstone of my ability to create a work-life balance. He provides a listening ear when I need to let off steam or joy about a clinical situation -- and at other times a firm reminder to "leave work at work."
Learning how to "balance" has been a long process. I remember being on my oncology rotation as a third-year medical student -- so engrossed in the patients, protocols, daily management, illnesses and triumphs -- that the rotation went by quickly. I thought if I wasn't 100 percent involved with every aspect of my patients' lives that I wouldn't be taking good care of them. I soon realized if I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist for a lifetime, I needed to find another way to create a balance between my home life and my career. My balance isn't perfect yet, but being flexible with how I define (and re-define) that balance helps.
My time at St. Jude is split between clinical patient care and clinical/translational research -- a balance that gives me a direct and indirect way to impact the care of my patients and keeps from burning out in one area alone. I take care of children with a wide variety of solid tumors. Since 2011, I have been the leader of the clinical retinoblastoma program at St. Jude, working closely with our ocular oncologist. We discuss the ocular exams and response to therapy of each patient together and with the family, providing a true team approach to care.
Approximately 25-30 new retinoblastoma patients are treated at St. Jude every year, making this one of the most active retinoblastoma programs in the United States. This referral pattern reflects the program's reputation an international center of excellence.
Our team has also established an unparalleled translational research program. The discoveries from analyzing retinoblastoma tumors as part of the St. Jude - Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project led to further collaboration with our Chemical Biology and Therapeutics Department. As a result, we have identified new targets for therapy in retinoblastoma. We are performing many preclinical studies to determine the best candidate to bring to clinical trials, and I hope to move forward with the first targeted therapy for retinoblastoma within the next two-to-three years. This intensive collaboration between the clinic and basic sciences, and focus on translating basic science discoveries to clinical trials, is part of what makes working at St. Jude so special.
About a year and a half ago, we welcomed our daughter to our family. Maintaining a balance between work and life has been both harder and easier since she arrived. The obvious logistical challenges of being a working parent apply, and working extra hours to compensate for evening playtime keep the week busy. However, at St. Jude I have the added benefit of working with both an outstanding clinical team and research team to keep all aspects of patient care and my career going -- even when I'm juggling 12-month immunization appointments.
In the evenings, I have a few hours for playing and dinner before the bath time/bed time routine starts. Just as my patients depend on me during the day, my daughter needs this time with me at home -- so I don't get caught up finishing "one more thing" before I leave work. I've also become more efficient with my evenings -- doing chores, spending time with my husband and finishing up projects from work.
No pediatric oncologist picks this job because it is easy -- but we have all found a rewarding experience that outweighs the challenges. I'm so grateful for my patients' confidence and trust. I cherish their inquiries about my daughter because they are so caring to think about others when facing their own trials. I cannot imagine a day -- an hour -- in their shoes; they have my utmost respect and admiration. Managing the emotions that come with this job -- the highs and the lows -- is difficult, and was even before I had a daughter at home. Some nights, I hug my husband and my daughter extra tight.
Being a mother, regardless of your occupation, can make you hyper vigilant at times. As a pediatrician, I can trouble-shoot many things at home -- even as a first-time mom -- that might be more worrisome or troubling to other parents. But, I admit that I feel my daughter's belly at least once a week for lumps that are often a telltale sign of a solid tumor, and I've even looked in her eyes and ears. Her pediatrician may be more alert to rare diagnoses due to my occupation, but she is not over-anxious, and this helps to keep me calm as well. I also know there are times I should be mommy and let her pediatrician be the doctor. Overall, I try to remind myself that cancer is rare, and every child is different.
Every day brings new challenges and new lessons. My daughter and career are both very young, and my approach to work-life balance may change as my family and profession mature. What won't change, however, is how I approach my patients and their families. As a woman who is both mother and pediatric oncologist, I'm not heading to work with any other purpose than what I did before -- to do my very best each day for every patient I encounter.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in recognition of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. For more information about St. Jude, click here.