What was my biggest obstacle?
The biggest problem I encountered was the relative insensitivity of colleagues (medical students and residents) to the severely disabled. People acted professionally and nicely if patients are cute and smart, but if a child or adult was physically malformed, drooling, unable to feed him or herself, incontinent, and non-verbal, they often expressed a degree of contempt that I found very upsetting. This negative experience actually helped me to become more vocal in advocating for patients and demanding better professional behavior from my peers.
How do I make a difference?
I spend most of my time treating people with sickle cell disease, a condition that largely affects ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, people with sickle cell disease do not usually get the same degree of sympathy and compassion as those affected by other hematologic problems, such as hemophilia or cancers. As a result, there are relatively few physicians who specialize in this area, so the work I do serves an otherwise underserved and misunderstood population. Scientifically, I am interested in how sickle cells affect blood vessel biology, a fairly new field of study. Combining vascular biology and hematology in the study of sickle cell disease has the potential to open new doors of understanding.
Who was my mentor?
Important influences in my training: Molly Schwenn, pediatric hematologist/oncologist, now working in Portand, Maine; and Holcombe Grier, a pediatric oncologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. They both have a love of learning, teaching, and patient care that was very nurturing in my clinical training years. Currently, my research mentor is Gary Gibbons, director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. He was willing to take the time to listen to the ideas of a middle-aged junior faculty person; he took my ideas seriously, and has guided me in restarting my scientific research career.
How has my career evolved over time?
Since medical school, I was interested in blood, so becoming a hematologist was a natural outcome. I was interested in treating children because I really enjoyed watching them grow and change through time, and I found working with the family unit to be fascinating and often challenging. As a sickle cell doctor, I treat acute life-threatening complications as well as routine well-child issues and I find this combination to be a good balance. As a hematology/oncology research fellow, I studied red cell membrane biology and interactions between sickle red cells and vascular endothelial cells. After the birth of my son in 1996, I had less time to do lab research and focused more on clinical trials of anti-sickling medications and iron chelators. I thought I was done with lab research when I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1998, but I found myself gravitating back to it every time I attended scientific meetings. In 2000, I re-entered the lab to study endothelial cell gene induction by sickle cells, looking for causes of artery narrowing that causes stroke in sickle cell disease. This year, at the age of 41, I have been awarded a research-training grant [from the National Institutes of Health] to study this problem over the next five years.