The third year of medical school comes with certain unavoidable realities: the training is hard, the days are long, and you will be tired. These are expected, and largely necessary. When my third year rolled around, I had prepared myself, and I was ready. What I hadn’t expected, however, was how quickly the time would come when I would need to decide what specialty to enter—and what a difficult decision that would be.
Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with medicine. Coming from an immediate family composed entirely of doctors and nurses, one might think that kind of familial affinity for medicine would have rubbed off. That wasn’t the case for me, though. I had gone to work a few times with my father, an internist, and if the smells weren’t enough to turn me away, all the tubes draining from unusual places sure were. I thought architecture, as my grandfather had practiced, was the field for me. But as time went by, I realized that I wanted help people directly, face to face, and the things that previously had turned me off medicine somehow didn’t seem so bad anymore. So medicine became my path.
As I entered medical school, there was no denying why I was where I was. I was eager to start school in order to gain the knowledge and skills that would allow me to help people directly on a daily basis. As I progressed through rotations like pediatrics, internal medicine and surgery, however, something was missing. Despite enjoying and learning from all of those disciplines, I couldn’t say that I felt strongly drawn to one particular area. Procedures and surgeries were fun and, if I may say so, I was even good at them—but surgery just didn’t seem right for me.
As I continued through clinical rotations into my fourth year, a close mentor kept telling me that, if I would give it a try, I would probably enjoy oncology. I had studied cancer and chemotherapy, but I was wary that the specialty would be filled with sadness and pain. Still, something about it was intriguing, and I arranged a rotation on the oncology ward. To my joyful surprise, my mentor had been right—I loved every minute of it. Rather than being sullen and downtrodden, the patients I encountered were filled with determination, courage and peace. Working with them was a daily inspiration. I had a chance to work closely with—and provide hope, comfort and guidance to—patients who were going through a scary, life-changing event that is unlike any other. Things finally clicked, and I had that feeling: this is why I wanted to be a doctor.
Since then, following three years of internal medicine residency and three years of hematology/medical oncology fellowship, I am thrilled to say that feeling has never changed. Oncology has proven to be a dynamic field, with new treatments and effective therapies that are helping more people than ever before. And the opportunity to work closely with patients in that setting, as they go through a complex, intimidating illness that will leave an indelible mark on their lives, is a special one that I am humbled to have.
In the United States in 2015, nearly 600,000 patients died of cancer. Millions more underwent treatment or learned to live as survivors. In the past decade, countless advances have been made in cancer treatment that allow many to be cured who in the past would have had no such hope. New combinations of chemotherapy are not only more effective, but can be given with far fewer toxic effects, such as nausea or fatigue. Immense strides have been made that allow us to harness a patient’s own immune system to attack cancers that traditionally had proved highly resistant to therapy. In some cases, a patient’s cancer progresses or may be incurable, but here, too, advances have been made in slowing tumor growth, prolonging life, and managing pain and other symptoms, allowing patients to enjoy life despite their disease. And even in the toughest circumstances, we can walk with patients and families at the end of life, honor their wishes and—with the help of hospice and palliative care—treat them with the dignity they deserve.
I couldn’t be happier to pursue this work at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. When choosing a practice setting, I looked for an institution that shared my vision and had the necessary tools to provide this kind of patient care. At Sentara Martha Jefferson I have found a rare commitment to patient care and an uncommon level of expertise. With a state-of-the-art cancer center, expert clinicians and skilled nurses to administer cutting-edge therapies, our hospital is at the forefront of cancer treatment, while providing an environment that enables patients to stay as comfortable as possible. Looking back on the path that brought me here, although it may have been a little windy at first, I’m certainly glad I took the trip. The outcomes—and being where I am today—have certainly been worth it.