Things Became Clearer When I... Discovered I Could Build Bonds with Patients and Their Families
Dr. Jeremy Connors ’10
Fellow, Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, University of Texas, Houston, Texas
I took my very first steps as a baby in an emergency room, while visiting my mother when she was working as a nurse.
Destiny’s not necessarily the right word, but I was always involved in that life.
At Stevens, I studied biomedical engineering. I was in the co-op program, working with a pharmaceutical company, developing drugs and learning about clinical trials. It made me realize that I longed for that patient interaction.
With oncology, you build that relationship with the patient and family, and you get to maintain that. That was kind of a no-brainer for me.
When I started medical school, I wanted to be an infectious disease doctor. But one of my mentors specialized in working with immunocompromised patients who received chemotherapy. She introduced me to her oncology colleagues. And I later realized that with oncology, you build that relationship with the patient and family, and you get to maintain that. That was kind of a no-brainer for me.
This became so clear later in medical school. I was treating a cancer patient; he was about 20. He had been undergoing treatment for leukemia, had received a bone marrow transplant and was riddled with infections. His transplant wasn’t holding. We were really just buying him days. I sat down with his mom one day and asked her what she wanted to do. He had been undergoing treatment since he was 16. It was a conversation of everything we had done to try to bridge him to that point.
She reflected on the fact that he had had a decent life during that time. It wasn’t great. It was by no means what he deserved. Mostly, she was just so happy that we did anything at all to help him through the process. She was just thankful that there were people out there doing this at all.
I was with her when he died that night. The fact that I felt comfortable being with her during that time was eye-opening. I initially thought: ‘What’s wrong with me? I’m not having a panic attack sitting in this room holding her hand as her son is dying.’ But then came the realization that this is something I can do. I’m comfortable having these conversations. But I’m also fine just sitting there and being with people at that time, when they don’t know what to say.
Another patient experience that pushed me into oncology also happened in medical school. He was a 16-year-old who had been kicked out of his home. I had to diagnose him with HIV and two other diseases. He started to cry, and I tried to be present for him. And he said, ‘I can’t believe I have syphilis.’ It caught me so off guard that this distressed him, because syphilis is a curable disease. The HIV diagnosis had less of an effect on him. But his reflection was when you get HIV in the homeless community, you get support, you get automatic healthcare. That was his ticket to entry — that horrible disease that we still don’t have a cure for was his ticket to being taken care of.
I cared for him for several years. He enrolled in vocational school and was doing fantastic. But the fact that we live in a country where this was the only way that he was going to be taken care of is atrocious. That was my first kickoff into this world of taking care of teenagers. There’s so much good you can do.
It’s desperate stories like these that are so ingrained in my brain. It changed the way I approach things — to never assume you know what someone else’s view of the world is. I’m thankful to him for putting me in my place. I hope he is doing well wherever he is.
I am now with MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, in their pediatric hematology/oncology department. The adolescents and young adults that I work with typically have worse outcomes than their younger counterparts. But early use of targeted and experimental therapies are improving their chances to do well and have a better quality of life.
In my research, one of the things we look at is sequencing DNA. So, you can take a leukemia, and you can sequence every cell in your sample to see how they’re different, and potentially see how they evolved and how the leukemia came to be. Every person who walks through the door is going to be different. It’s going to be a laundry list of genetic stuff that we have identified. Where we’re at in oncology now — it’s becoming so individualized.
In the near future, I also hope to aid in developing virtual reality to help my patients. VR can relieve the anxiety of MRI scans or help with counseling. Kids meet in a virtual room, so they’re not embarrassed talking face to face about things they’re going through. Everyone can choose what they look like or a character they want to be. One colleague was struggling in counseling young adults because they didn’t want to talk to each other. But when you put them in a virtual space, they started spilling their guts.
Adolescents and young adults are a fun group that I always enjoyed working with. They’re feisty, they’re weird — always in the best of ways.
For me, it’s the interaction of getting to know people and watching them grow up. Another one of my kids, she just ran her first track meet at college. Her mom was texting me pictures of her crossing the finish line. She came in last, but she could not have been more thrilled that she was even able to run it.” — As told to Beth Kissinger