Why I became an oncologist
An unidentified patient goes through chemotherapy treatment.
June 3rd, 2011
07:10 AM ET

Why I became an oncologist

Editor's note: George Sledge, M.D., is president of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, the organization of America’s cancer doctors, whose annual meeting begins today. Treating cancer can be an extraordinarily difficult field, guiding patients on a roller coaster ride of fear, pain and sometimes true exhilaration. Dr. Sledge shares the story of the patient who made him decide to become an oncologist.

Cancer doctors tend to get to their profession in one of three ways. Some are drawn in through their love of cancer science. Cancer has always been something like a cobra to those who study it: dangerous and beautiful and endlessly fascinating. Cancer is a universe. One can spend an entire life exploring it without ever getting bored, for the biology of cancer is the biology of life.

Some doctors are inspired by a great teacher. Medicine is still a profession dominated by old-world apprenticeships, where a mentor’s passion can be transmitted to a new generation. I have known several oncologists whose careers turned on chance encounters with inspiring professors.

Others get there by way of their patients. I’m one of these. When I was a resident, cancer patients were the ones who touched my heart. In fact, I can remember the very moment I started my path to becoming an oncologist.

I was an intern at St. Louis University, a brand-new doctor, with my white coat still fresh and creased, when I first met Carmelita Steele. Carmelita was in her early twenties, married, with (as I recall) two young children. She came to our hospital as a transfer in the middle of the night. She had undergone a routine dental procedure, and after her surgery had first oozed, and then gushed blood. By the time she got to us she was severely anemic, and had a low platelet count. There was a very real concern in those first few hours that she would bleed to death.

We worked through the night stabilizing her. Her veins were hard to access–they had all been used up during her time at the other hospital. In those days (the late 1970's) we lacked modern venous access devices, and I remember it taking a frighteningly long time establishing an intravenous line. Through it all I spoke to Carmie, who was a cheerful if appropriately anxious African-American woman, somewhat overweight, proud of her children and her loving family. We poured several units of blood into her that night, bringing her back from the brink.

We spent the next couple of days establishing a diagnosis. She had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, then as now a dangerous disease requiring toxic chemotherapy to clear the blood and bone marrow of treacherous cells. I learned the diagnosis shortly after morning rounds. Her staff doctor, an elderly hematologist (or so he seemed then, though I am now about his age) would, I discovered, be off campus until the following morning. I knew that Carmie and her family were desperate for news, so I phoned the staff physician and asked if it was OK for me to speak to her. He agreed.

I had never told a patient that he or she had cancer before. I sat on the edge of her bed and told her that she had a type of leukemia, that it was very dangerous but that it was potentially curable with chemotherapy. I told her that we would be starting treatment the following morning, as soon as her staff physician had a chance to go over the drug regimen with her.

Carmelita had sat quietly while I spoke, a sad look on her face. When I was through she said, almost in a whisper, "Doctor Sledge, who will take care of my children?"

It was the last thing I was expecting, and it was thoroughly devastating. I did not know how to answer. Today I hope I would do better, but at the time I was in my mid-twenties, just a few years older than Carmie, and I did not know how to answer that question. I stammered something, barely maintaining my composure, and then left her room and hid in a stairwell for a half an hour sobbing.

The next day we started her chemotherapy regimen, full of hope. I spoke to her regularly, and to her family. Her husband, a quiet decent man, stood by looking worried. Her mother, a medical technician who understood leukemia, rarely left her daughter's bedside. They were the sort of family we all should have.

For several days things went well. Then, as her blood counts plummeted in response to the chemotherapy, she developed an infection in the area of her intravenous line, followed by sepsis. Her blood pressure dropped, and her breathing became rapid and labored. She was transferred to the intensive care unit, intubated, and treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics. Sometime in the middle of the night, disoriented and alone, she pulled the breathing tube out of her mouth. Though she was quickly re-intubated, things rapidly went from bad to worse, and she died the following day.

I went home that night in a furiously angry mood. I was supposed to be going out with my girlfriend, but in my grief and guilt I simply could not think straight or act civil, so I begged off. I relived every moment of her care: what had I missed, what could I have done differently, what foul-up had I committed that kept a 22 year-old from taking care of her young children? It is the arrogance of interns that they believe that acute leukemia would turn out differently if only they had gotten a little more sleep.

A few weeks later I got a call from Carmelita's mother. She wanted to meet with me. I agreed, with real trepidation. The wound was still too raw, and there was part of me that feared she might hold me responsible for her daughter's passing.

But she was as gracious as I could ever have imagined. I have three sons, all in their twenties, and if one of them died of leukemia I do not know how I would handle it. Poorly, I suspect. But she was dignified, pleasant and grateful. She told me that Carmie, before she had died, had told her that, come what may, she wanted to give me a gift to thank me for my care, and for the hours I had spent with her. She then handed me $40 and told me I was to spend it on something fun. Carmie had wanted it that way.

My patients, starting with Carmelita Steele, have taught me so much about what it means to be a good doctor and, I hope, a good person. I am an oncologist because of her, and it is a job I have loved for three decades. But Carmelita's question still haunts me: "who will take care of my children?"

There are some debts you can never repay.

Post by:
Filed under: Cancer

soundoff (1,353 Responses)
  1. nearby rv repair

    I blog often and I genuinely thank you for your information. Your article has truly peaked my interest. I'm going to take a note of your site and keep checking for new information about once a week. I subscribed to your RSS feed as well.


    May 24, 2021 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. truck shop orange county california

    After I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I recieve four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you are able to remove me from that service? Appreciate it!


    May 24, 2021 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. LebnEncox

    canada pharmacy online eye drop cheap medications

    May 24, 2021 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Echelon Stride Treadmill Reviews

    I'm curious to find out what blog platform you have been working with? I'm experiencing some minor security problems with my latest blog and I would like to find something more safe. Do you have any solutions?


    May 24, 2021 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. RV Camera Riverside

    Aw, this was a really good post. Finding the time and actual effort to generate a superb article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and don't seem to get nearly anything done.


    May 24, 2021 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. camper body repair

    I enjoy reading through a post that will make men and women think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!


    May 24, 2021 at 21:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. GtnbCrulk

    how much viagra to take first time https://jokviagra.com/ – is viagra generic does revatio work like viagra

    May 24, 2021 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Digital Marketing Specialist


    May 24, 2021 at 23:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Internet Marketing Agency Near Me


    May 24, 2021 at 23:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Social Media Marketing Business

    I wanted to thank you for this fantastic read!! I certainly loved every bit of it. I have got you bookmarked to look at new things you post…


    May 24, 2021 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Social Media Marketing Company Near Me


    May 25, 2021 at 03:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Social Media Marketing Firms Near Me


    May 25, 2021 at 04:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. EncoxGtv

    viagra generic online pharmacy united kingdom pharmacy online best online pharmacy xanax

    May 25, 2021 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Tembepteriope

    https://hydroaaralen.com/ sildenafil online https://aralenquinestrx.com/ – sildenafil online sildenafil 100mg review

    May 25, 2021 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil brand name how to take sildenafil sildenafil 100mg coupon https://chloroquinesusa.com/

    May 25, 2021 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. CrulkAsd

    buy generic cialis 5mg https://cialisjla.com/ – viagra/cialis packs cialis/generic

    May 25, 2021 at 13:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil and alcohol https://hydrochloroquinesol.com/ – sildenafil citrate side effects hims sildenafil sildenafil 20 sildenafil 20 mg reviews

    May 25, 2021 at 13:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Local Marketing Firms


    May 25, 2021 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil citrate https://chloroquinesusa.com/ sildenafil 20 mg tablet sildenafil price walmart sildenafil citrate 50mg

    May 25, 2021 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. EncoxAni

    online pharmacy in canada https://pharmacyken.com/ – canadian pharmacy zolpidem vipps canadian online pharmacy

    May 25, 2021 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. combigan

    combigan side effects brimonidine side effects

    May 25, 2021 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Tembepteriope

    https://chloroquinesil.com/ sildenafil or tadalafil https://chloroquinervn.com/ – sildenafil price sildenafil citrate tablets 100mg

    May 25, 2021 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Villas around Hyderabad for Sale

    815457 870744noutati interesante si utile postate pe blogul dumneavoastra. dar ca si o paranteza , ce parere aveti de inchiriere vile vacanta ?. 19222

    May 25, 2021 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil vs viagra sildenafil citrate 50mg how much sildenafil is too much https://chloroquinesada.com/

    May 25, 2021 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil for dogs what is sildenafil citrate sildenafil citrate tablets 100mg sildenafil citrate https://chloroquinesil.com/ – sildenafil 20

    May 25, 2021 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil warnings https://chloroquineef.com/ – how long does it take for sildenafil to take effect sildenafil citrate 100mg how much sildenafil is too much hims sildenafil

    May 25, 2021 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. avanafil

    avanafil cost avanafil india

    May 25, 2021 at 18:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil reviews sildenafil over the counter goodrx sildenafil sildenafil brand name https://chloroquineef.com/

    May 25, 2021 at 20:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Internet Marketing Firms


    May 25, 2021 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Social Media Marketing Agency Around Me


    May 25, 2021 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil 100mg coupon https://hydrochloroquinetrx.com/ – sildenafil citrate side effects sildenafil para que es sildenafil vs viagra https://chloroquinesbtc.com/

    May 25, 2021 at 23:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil vs viagra https://chloroquinestrx.com/ – sildenafil pills sildenafil 100 mg sildenafil for pulmonary hypertension roman sildenafil

    May 26, 2021 at 00:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. RV Paint Shop Orange County


    May 26, 2021 at 01:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Steps California


    May 26, 2021 at 01:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Tembepteriope

    viagra sildenafil sildenafil brand name sildenafil dosage timing https://chloroquineth.com/

    May 26, 2021 at 03:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil para que es sildenafil coupon sildenafil otc sildenafil online https://chloroquineser.com/

    May 26, 2021 at 04:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil citrate 100mg how long does it take for sildenafil to take effect sildenafil dosage timing https://hydroxychloroquinegld.com/

    May 26, 2021 at 05:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Tembepteriope

    https://chloroquinestrx.com/ sildenafil 100mg price sildenafil side effects sildenafil online sildenafil for sale

    May 26, 2021 at 06:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil for women sildenafil 20 mg reviews sildenafil dosage https://chloroquineef.com/

    May 26, 2021 at 07:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Tembepteriope

    https://erythromycin1m.com/ sildenafil 20 sildenafil 50 mg how to take sildenafil sildenafil pills

    May 26, 2021 at 08:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Tembepteriope

    does sildenafil work https://chloroquinesab.com/ sildenafil dosage timing sildenafil coupon sildenafil side effects

    May 26, 2021 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. maintenance shops near me

    A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to publish more on this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but usually folks don't speak about these issues. To the next! Kind regards!!


    May 26, 2021 at 11:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil para que es sildenafil uses sildenafil 20 mg https://chloroquinesand.com/

    May 26, 2021 at 12:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Tembepteriope

    how long does it take for sildenafil to take effect sildenafil precio sildenafil over the counter sildenafil citrate 50mg https://hydroxychloroquinegld.com/

    May 26, 2021 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. RV Windows Near Me


    May 26, 2021 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Sound System Los Angeles


    May 26, 2021 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil price walmart https://hydrochloroquineada.com/ sildenafil otc how much sildenafil is too much sildenafil citrate 100mg

    May 26, 2021 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Tembepteriope

    https://chloroquinesen.com/ sildenafil pills https://chloroquinervn.com/ – sildenafil online sildenafil online

    May 26, 2021 at 16:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Tembepteriope

    sildenafil or tadalafil sildenafil goodrx sildenafil 60mg sildenafil 20 mg dosage https://azithromycinetc.com – sildenafil 50 mg

    May 26, 2021 at 18:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Tembepteriope

    what is sildenafil how long does sildenafil last sildenafil 100mg review how long does sildenafil last https://chloroquineth.com/ – sildenafil cost

    May 26, 2021 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Leave a Reply to Nick's Air Conditioning And Heating Orlando FL


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.