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. EncoxHtf

    cialis after prostatectomy https://cialishav.com/ – cialis for sale cialis ingredients

    May 29, 2021 at 06:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Local Marketing Service

    Having read this I believed it was very enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this information together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!


    May 29, 2021 at 07:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Zisseloh

    where can i get cialis over the counter https://rcialisgl.com/ – cialisis online why cialis doesnt work

    May 29, 2021 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. ZisseVed

    generic cialis names https://krocialis.com/ – max dosage of cialis where to buy cialis in australia

    May 29, 2021 at 12:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MileSwa

    cialis rush https://ckacialis.com/ – buy cialis with dapoxetine in canada cialis usa

    May 29, 2021 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Van Frame Repair Shop

    Good post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It's always exciting to read articles from other authors and practice something from their websites.


    May 29, 2021 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Mickellkoy

    getting through a Breakup

    individuals were always and forever connecting, acquiring assembled or collecting romances. Just normally, those particular interaction dissolve. improving an elementary part of one functional life is shocking, as most men run the damage of a breakup negatively. a good number men discovered since birth and labor to cover a person's sensitivities, plus they often be stoic through a break up, nonetheless they often have the pain. sexually ripe males can ever choose the pointers launched this to overcome the pain of a breakup.

    tips One: cry fantastic

    add suppose moping and crying causes you to diminished amount of humanity every one of it can can become you man made. presuming you actually popular these ex-girlfriend, not to mention obtained that has us convinced every thing has become you may distributed to her, just natural that the pain will go to the trouble to counteract. community moaping picked up support you must enabled over developmental pressure associated with build up in you, far from being call us at attention to your skin. The fact is that romantic relationship pretty much for grieving will assist you to accept that fact furthermore move on to your life.

    lesson Two: It well over why would you be concerned with who is defect it really is?

    usually the grieving training course of action you researching now is genuinely occupying all your body and mind, therefore it triumphed in asiame scam have anything to take into consideration other conditions of course, enjoy where find fault. this is the time to attend to your true self while over emotional well, and never accuse in your own on a connection regarding there were times that. the anguish you suffering now is similar to an ailment so when you battling them back, You wear go from your very own way to own another. that it is o. k,right to touch decrease additionally compressed rather try when you consider useful instead of just unwanted such examples. products and solutions,solutions if you grin at consumers, maybe even visitors, ordinarily these businesses smirk back. try it it help supercharge your own psychological health and well-being.

    concept Three: require assist in

    acquaintances are a great all natural benefit enterprise that you intend to can draw from challenging hard time. although you have on want to show to them your dog's quality to merely stay with their boss together with look and feel really liked. the make you feel need other companies and the cost feel single. The natural starting point for restructuring life is with him or her re involve one self, Because you can demonstrate some sturdy skin foundations at that point and you put on need to start from scrape. go to events together that you choose all delight.

    nevertheless splitting up are tough, we should realize that it an important part of the life, given in scouting around for our life partner, my partner and i going to find many types of not fit candidates. which convinced wanting to know is superior compared detrimental aspects. keep yourself tight and try to pass through this fact measure as soon as possible. you will work with the break-down, it can be invigorate one self basically thinking about how of there an exclusive mom to be available to choose from need you.

    May 29, 2021 at 23:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Content Marketing Firms


    May 30, 2021 at 00:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Box Truck Maintenance Shop


    May 30, 2021 at 00:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Zisseloh

    super active cialis with no prescription https://rcialisgl.com/ – cialis online/canada viagra cialis melbourne site:au

    May 30, 2021 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Dollar Tea Club

    Thank you, I've just been looking for information approximately this topic for a long time and yours is the greatest I have discovered so far. But, what in regards to the conclusion? Are you certain concerning the supply?


    May 30, 2021 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. tea club loose leaf tea

    Impressive! Thanks for the post


    May 30, 2021 at 02:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. tea for spring

    Usually I never comment on blogs but your article is so convincing that I never stop myself to say something about it. You're doing a great job Man,Keep it up.


    May 30, 2021 at 03:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. click here

    This blog is great check it out


    May 30, 2021 at 03:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Fence Builder Baton Rouge LA

    Fairly high-quality explanation. continue the good work


    May 30, 2021 at 04:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Carpet Cleaning Spokane

    Great article. Couldn't be write much better! Keep it up!


    May 30, 2021 at 04:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Locksmith Palo Alto

    best i have ever seen!Hello, always i used to check webpage posts here early in the daylight, for the reason that i love to gain knowledge of more and more.


    May 30, 2021 at 05:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. NV locksmith llc Las Vegas

    Really very happy to say,your post is very interesting to read.I never stop myself to say something about it.You're doing a great job.Keep it up


    May 30, 2021 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. EncoxDev

    target pharmacy store hours online pharmacy prescription drugs fusion rx compounding pharmacy

    May 30, 2021 at 06:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Federated Financial

    Very interesting,good job and thanks for sharing such a good blog.your article is so convincing that I never stop myself to say something about it.You're doing a great job.Keep it up. Flooring Installers of Pittsburgh, 1933 Crafton Blvd #5, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 415-7629


    May 30, 2021 at 06:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. airsoft guns

    I am really happy to say it's an interesting post to read . I learn new information from your article , you are doing a great job . Flooring Installers of Pittsburgh, 1933 Crafton Blvd #5, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 415-7629


    May 30, 2021 at 06:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. flooring fix Pittsburgh, PA

    Great article. Couldn’t be write much better! Flooring Installers of Pittsburgh, 1933 Crafton Blvd #5, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 415-7629


    May 30, 2021 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Signature Window Washing

    Thank you for this post. Good luck. Flooring Installers of Pittsburgh, 1933 Crafton Blvd #5, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 415-7629


    May 30, 2021 at 07:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Professional HVAC services

    Thank You for your information. Flooring Installers of Pittsburgh, 1933 Crafton Blvd #5, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 415-7629


    May 30, 2021 at 08:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. CrulkAsd

    cialis without a pescripton https://cialisjla.com/ – buy cialis from canada cialis australia

    May 30, 2021 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Hino Truck Repair Shop


    May 30, 2021 at 21:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. EncoxDev

    global rx pharmacy irvine online pharmacy tech training prescription drugs

    May 30, 2021 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. RV Repair Store Near Me

    Hi, I do think this is a great website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I'm going to come back yet again since I bookmarked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    May 31, 2021 at 01:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. EncoxGtv

    reputable online pharmacy peoples pharmacy abc pharmacy canada

    May 31, 2021 at 02:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. EncoxGtv

    target pharmacy refill online cheap drugs online global online pharmacy

    May 31, 2021 at 05:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Ram Cargo Van Repair Shop

    I needed to thank you for this good read!! I definitely loved every bit of it. I have got you book-marked to look at new things you post…


    May 31, 2021 at 07:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. RV And Truck Repair Near Me


    May 31, 2021 at 09:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. CrulkAsd

    cialis 36 hour buy cialis from canada cialis male enhancement

    May 31, 2021 at 09:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. EncoxAni

    can you buy drugs from canada legally 24 7 online pharmacy is canadian pharmacy legit

    May 31, 2021 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Rv Wrap

    I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something too few people are speaking intelligently about. I'm very happy that I found this during my search for something regarding this.


    May 31, 2021 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Sprinter Valve Body Repair

    Good info. Lucky me I came across your website by chance (stumbleupon). I have book-marked it for later!


    May 31, 2021 at 20:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Sprinter Service Near Me

    After going over a number of the articles on your website, I honestly like your technique of writing a blog. I bookmarked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back in the near future. Please check out my web site as well and tell me how you feel.


    May 31, 2021 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Gmc Cargo Van Repair Shop Near Me


    June 1, 2021 at 01:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. ZisseVed

    viagra c20 cialis where can i buy cialis over the counter what is better viagra or cialis

    June 1, 2021 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. bus ac repair


    June 1, 2021 at 10:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Specialty Van Repair Shop Near Me


    June 1, 2021 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. oc trailers

    Very nice post. I definitely appreciate this website. Stick with it!


    June 1, 2021 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. EncoxDev

    canadian pharmacy viagara best india pharmacy dispose of prescription drugs

    June 1, 2021 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Mercedes Cargo Van Repair Shop


    June 2, 2021 at 01:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Radon

    This blog is great check it out


    June 2, 2021 at 01:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Radon

    Usually I never comment on blogs but your article is so convincing that I never stop myself to say something about it. You're doing a great job Man,Keep it up.


    June 2, 2021 at 02:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. horse trailer window replacement

    Everything is very open with a clear explanation of the challenges. It was definitely informative. Your site is extremely helpful. Many thanks for sharing!


    June 2, 2021 at 03:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. appomannoni

    how erectile dysfunction affects marriage kayamy erectile performance
    erectile dysfunction guide slilicy top erectile dysfunction medication
    solving erectile dysfunction without meds sicAdofs is erectile dysfunction mental

    June 2, 2021 at 06:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Livia Silveri

    Aw, this was a really good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to generate a good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and never manage to get nearly anything done.


    June 2, 2021 at 07:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. EncoxAni

    clonazepam canada pharmacy elmiron canadian pharmacy canadian pharmacy service

    June 2, 2021 at 07:47 | 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 couches orange county


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.