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. FqhhEncox

    canadian pharmacy cialis 20mg canadian drugs online pharmacy drugs from canada with prescription

    February 6, 2021 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. AhkdEncox

    Viagra Soft Flavored best canadian online pharmacy medical pharmacy

    February 6, 2021 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. DevOps Service Provider

    861252 744791I like this internet internet site quite considerably, Its a actually good billet to read and obtain info . 72178

    February 7, 2021 at 00:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. JbnbCrulk

    panacea pharmacy overseas pharmacies medicine online shopping

    February 7, 2021 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. http://wearegeneralnews.com/

    Hello there I am so thrilled I found your weblog, I really found you by error, while I was browsing on Aol for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say many thanks for a remarkable post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I dont have time to read it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the awesome work.


    February 7, 2021 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Kuikseelt

    viagra without prescriptions ordering viagra 100 mg viagra triangle

    February 7, 2021 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. LbsxEncox

    costco pharmacy pricing viagra in canada canada pharmacy online

    February 7, 2021 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. AhkdEncox

    canada pharmaceuticals online trust pharmacy canada tadalafil

    February 7, 2021 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. NncsZisse

    viagra online shopping in australia dapoxetine viagra viagra 100 tablets

    February 8, 2021 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. TrevaBDriver

    Thankfulness to my dad who given to me about this website, this
    webpage is actually remarkable.

    Feel free to surf to my website TrevaBDriver

    February 9, 2021 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Matthew Ortmeier

    This was a great post. Thank you for sharing! https://cranberrytownshiplawnservice.tumblr.com/


    February 9, 2021 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. KbcxMile

    ed meds online hormones viagra canada

    February 9, 2021 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. tadalafil max dose

    vivida tablets https://tadalisxs.com/ tadalis 20 mg

    February 10, 2021 at 02:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. zortilonrel

    I am not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this info for my mission.


    February 10, 2021 at 02:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. tendances du coronavirus - france

    hydrochloroqine https://hydroxychloroquinex.com/ dosage for hydroxychloroquine

    February 10, 2021 at 02:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. clonidine hcl

    who chloroquine https://chloroquineorigin.com/ chloroquine phosphate vs chloroquine sulphate

    February 10, 2021 at 02:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. AqcfTeneseelt

    walmart pharmacy cialis prices cialis hk cialis no prescription

    February 10, 2021 at 06:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. LabxEncox

    cialis gГ©nГ©rique au maroc cialis generic mexico cialis boots chemist

    February 10, 2021 at 06:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. FvfcZisse

    viagra wiki buy strong viagra viagra alternative over the counter

    February 10, 2021 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. JbbnEncox

    prix cialis 5mg en pharmacie farmacia cialis generico cialis generika (tadalafil)

    February 11, 2021 at 03:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. FqbbEncox

    middletown cash loans what do you need to get a cash advance from amscot reffin investment cash loans scam

    February 11, 2021 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. theondecknews.com

    wonderful points altogether, you simply received a new reader. What might you suggest in regards to your publish that you simply made some days ago? Any positive?


    February 11, 2021 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. KvaxMile

    payday loan lawyers austin texas top payday advance loans cash advances at chase

    February 11, 2021 at 23:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. FbsgZisse

    cialis los angeles http://llecialisjaw.com/ viagra vs cialis reviews

    February 12, 2021 at 03:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. JbnvCrulk

    best instant payday loans online does cashback on a credit card count as a cash advance cash loans to doorstep

    February 12, 2021 at 09:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. www.wearethenationnews.com

    Wow, awesome blog format! How lengthy have you ever been running a blog for? you made running a blog look easy. The whole look of your website is great, let alone the content material!

    February 12, 2021 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Kbbfseelt

    buying cheap viagra http://kloviagrli.com/ discrete viagra online paypal australia

    February 12, 2021 at 11:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. NbnhZisse

    sildenafil 20 mg online no prescription http://vigedon.com/ where can i buy real viagra online

    February 12, 2021 at 21:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. AbcfTeneseelt

    order viagra without a rx viagra on sale online viagra price with prescription

    February 13, 2021 at 00:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. FqbbEncox

    louisiana laws for payday loan companies money mart cash loans today cash converters cash advance terms and conditions

    February 13, 2021 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Kbbfseelt

    viagraforcheap\\ http://kloviagrli.com/ kjГёp prozac og viagra her

    February 13, 2021 at 23:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. AhbzEncox

    how to get out of payday loans online instant online payday loans no credit check south africa tide you over payday loan review

    February 14, 2021 at 01:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. JbnvCrulk

    free money for student loan debt utah payday loan bill loan money fast online

    February 14, 2021 at 02:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. local flooring company Pittsburgh, PA

    I really like this post. Flooring Installers of Pittsburgh, 1933 Crafton Blvd #5, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 415-7629


    February 14, 2021 at 13:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. hydroxychloroquine sulfate oral

    long term side effects of plaquenil plaquenil brand name hydroxychloroquine sulphate

    February 14, 2021 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. LabxEncox

    cialis forum achat cheap viagra cialis uk achat de cialis sur internet

    February 15, 2021 at 07:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. what does plaquenil treat

    cheapest erectile dysfunction pill stopping plaquenil erectile tissue quizlet

    February 15, 2021 at 07:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Roofer Fishers, IN

    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 . Keep it up. R 5 Roofing and Construction, 13121 Olio Rd, Fishers, IN 46037, (317) 204-8983


    February 15, 2021 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. tadalafil 30 mg

    tadalafil 20mg tablets buy tadalafil us elevex 20mg

    February 15, 2021 at 19:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. AhbzEncox

    payday loan tennessee hhgregg credit card cash advance payday loans 23602

    February 16, 2021 at 06:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. NbnhZisse

    where to buy generic viagra over the counter real viagra online canada cheap viagra online canadian pharmacy

    February 16, 2021 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. KvaxMile

    loan on lic money back policy 200 payday loan direct lenders payday loans in md area

    February 16, 2021 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. 500000Scrapebox CommentBacklinks

    High DA PA 50+ Do follow Forum Backlinks: https://www.seoclerk.com/Link-Building/836800/High-DA-PA-50-Do-follow-Forum-Backlinks


    February 16, 2021 at 21:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. does cappuccino have caffeine in it

    Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I really enjoyed
    reading it, you may be a great author. I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will often come back later on. I
    want to encourage one to continue your great job, does cappuccino have caffeine in it a nice afternoon!


    February 16, 2021 at 23:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. dingssofunin1985.netlify.app

    Go Set A Watchman Ebook Free Download Rte Online Admission Video

    my homepage pdf base, dingssofunin1985.netlify.app,

    February 17, 2021 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. livedarknet

    779848 167062Likely to commence a business venture around the refers to disclosing your products and so programs not just to individuals near you, remember, though , to several potential prospects much more via the www often. earn cash 80803

    February 17, 2021 at 18:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. best independent Italian spot

    I really like reading through a post that can make men and women think. Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!


    February 18, 2021 at 08:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Ike Jaffray

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading this. I'll make sure to share with my friends.


    February 18, 2021 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. www.thetuckernews.com cooking

    Magnificent site. A lot of helpful info here. I am sending it to a few buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you in your effort!


    February 18, 2021 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. FbsgZisse

    cialis with no prescription cialis online order cialis uk

    February 18, 2021 at 21:20 | 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 FqfEncox


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.