From the October 2015 issue

Born to Heal: Fellow Cancer Survivors Helping Local Kids

Dr. Jeffrey Taub keeps a very special bulletin board in his office at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. Here, he displays photos of some of the pediatric oncology patients he has treated through the years. It’s a memento – a reminder of the lives his former cancer patients have gone on to lead as survivors.

“I like people to bring me pictures. But I prefer to have pictures of them after they finish treatment,” the division chief of oncology explains, wearing a hot pink “Cancer Sucks” button on his white coat. “I have pictures of healthy children. Some of them are graduation pictures from high school and some from college.”

Taub can relate to these patients in a significant way. While he says he doesn’t always offer up the factoid about his life, Taub is a fellow survivor. He was once a patient at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a type of lymph node cancer (it’s now called Hodgkin lymphoma), at around age 15.

Naturally, seeing former patients grow up and live beyond cancer is “gratifying” for the oncologist. And while he’s had several noteworthy patients over the course of his career, there is one in particular he has seen mature into a successful adult – and she’d certainly be difficult to forget.

“I think I’m memorable,” jokes Dr. Elana Ackerman, Taub’s niece, sitting next to her uncle. Ackerman, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 11, beat the disease and has come back to work at Children’s Hospital of Michigan alongside Taub as a pediatrics resident, also considering a specialty in oncology.

These two physicians who have a unique connection to the hospital at which they work, and to each other, are using their expertise – and some of their personal experiences – to care for the little lives that come through the hospital doors today and into the future.

A guided path

When he was diagnosed with cancer as a young teen, Taub’s pediatrician knew exactly where to send him for treatment: Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, just across the border from where Taub lived in Windsor.

Many things have changed since his days as a patient at the hospital (for one, parents are now allowed to stay overnight), but one thing has stayed the same: the caliber of care. “The hospital itself … (and) the doctors back then were excellent – excellent nurses,” he recalls.

And as difficult as it was to be a child with cancer, Ackerman recalls her own positive experiences from her stay at CHM.

“Everybody here was always so nice and friendly and warm, and all the nurses were always nice to me,” she says. “I remember playing board games with some of them and I would hang out with the pharmacist. It’s kind of like, when I would come back for visits after I was done with treatment, it felt like I was visiting middle school again.”

These significant moments arguably guided the duo to study medicine and, in Taub’s case, influenced him to pursue a specialty in oncology. And, as Ackerman stresses, cancer wasn’t solely a negative for her.

“I think it’s made me a better person and a better doctor, and I prefer to think of it in a positive light.” It’s possible her career would have taken shape in much the same way, she says, “but I think it definitely pushed me toward this direction in life, which I’m really thankful for.”

Personal touches

Though their firsthand encounters with pediatric cancer have guided their professional trajectories, it’s not something they discuss regularly. Somehow, they both note, their backgrounds have gotten out at times – even if they haven’t shared the story themselves. But for the occasional distraught parent who says, “You wouldn’t understand!” or the kid who is having a tough day? Their perspectives as former patients can be huge comforts.

“I feel like I use my experiences in ways I don’t have to verbalize. I understand what it’s like to be a kid in the hospital, and to be here and you want to be at school and you want to be hanging out with your friends and you don’t like the hospital food, you want the food at home and things like that,” Ackerman says. “There’s been moments where I’ve also said to other kids, ‘I’ve been here overnight on my birthday … I know that’s not fun,’ or, you know, ‘I’ve missed a lot of school, too’ – and I think that’s made me a more empathetic physician.”

The two have a knack for working with kids. Visits are playful. Taub’s way of interacting and engaging with his patients through conversation and even magic tricks creates some ease in a not-always-pleasant situation. One of his patients, a 3-year-old girl with Down syndrome, loves to hold the reflex hammer. “We’ve gotten into this habit. You have to hand her the hammer and then she checks her own arms, then she has to do it to you, and she does it to her mother. That’s our routine,” he says.

The whole hospital environment at CHM lends to this way of caring. There’s even a chemistry Taub points to among the staff. Taub, who attended medical school in Ontario, trained and was once a resident at CHM, and Ackerman, who studied at Michigan State University, are now following in those footsteps. Taub says staying at CHM has been an advantage in numerous ways. Ackerman coming back is also a testament to the work of the hospital, he notes.

“It just shows, people stay and work here because they love this place. And there’s not a big turnover, which speaks so highly of the atmosphere. Obviously there are other places you can go work, but people want to come work here with us – the doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, all the other support people – there’s something about working here at Children’s Hospital,” he says. “It’s camaraderie and the team. We’re like one big family.”

Life ahead

Both Ackerman’s and Taub’s families are close. They cite spending time with family as a favorite pastime outside of the hospital (Taub has three daughters), and they enjoy traveling, too. Lower Michigan and up north made their lists of favorite places to be.

With about a year and a half left of her residency at CHM, Ackerman is considering oncology as a specialty. As for her hopes to stay at CHM? It’s “very likely” she will, she says, “and even if I did leave, I’d be planning on coming back. There’s nowhere I can picture myself living later on than in Detroit. And I’d love to work here. I love working here already.”

She says she’s inspired by her uncle and enjoys that with oncology, physicians get to have long-term interactions with patients. While the two docs joke about the comments pediatric oncologists face in social situations (a common reaction is, “Oh, that must be so depressing!”) it’s the patient stories that can make the job so uplifting.

“The survival rate of childhood cancer has increased dramatically through the years and so more kids survive, and so you’re able to have kids grow up – and grow hair and graduate and give their pictures for bulletin board,” Ackerman says. “I think that’s really what a career in pediatric oncology is more about, rather than the negatives.”

Taub is also a professor of pediatrics at nearby Wayne State University and holds the Ring Screw Textron Endowed Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research. He has been studying the causes of leukemia in children and looking into better treatment options, he says. Just this year, Taub was awarded a $250,000 Hyundai Scholar Hope Grant to fund research on new therapies for kids with acute myeloid leukemia, specifically those who relapse following chemotherapy.

Taub thinks fondly on the experience of watching former patients who were once 3 and 4 years old grow taller than him and have achievements of their own – despite the hurdle of having had cancer.

“Some people go into medicine, they want an immediate fix. They want to be able to fix somebody; take out their appendix, and you fix them,” Taub says. “Obviously what we go into, you’re taking somebody – probably (during) the most devastating part of someone’s life – and getting them through some real challenges, but knowing that the payoff and the reward afterwards is somebody who’s completely healthy, completely recovered, with no stigma or any actual signs of having been treated for cancer. So I think that’s really gratifying.”

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

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