Sunitha V
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Training to beat blood cancer

Sunitha V
Posted by
27 Nov 2013

My passion for Paediatrics is an indelibly etched one – one I someday hope to see come to fruition. Having had the privilege of working closely with children in many different perspectives in the past, I have learnt that it gives me great joy and satisfaction to be able to care for children and to be involved with their families and community.

However, it was not until a totally unforeseen, traumatic experience last year, that my determination to pursue Paediatrics, was reinforced. I was diagnosed with cancer: Stage II Hodgkin Lymphoma. My world crashed and I was broken. But over the course of the subsequent months, as I faced the challenges of chemotherapy, with the love and support of my family and healthcare providers, I grew in strength and matured by leaps and bounds. I reflected on little children, ridden with this illness and their families. It dawned on me, how an empathetic, caring doctor was pivotal in maintaining a family’s composure. The paradigm of evidence-based medicine for best patient care empowered me in my decision-making when I considered my own treatment options. I was thankful to science and research for guiding me to the path of complete recovery. It inspired me to contribute to society through both clinical and academic medicine.

With the bursary offered by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, I pursued the Paediatric Oncology Clerkship at Children’s Hospital Boston (a.k.a. “Children’s”) as part of my medical school elective this summer. This programme, in collaboration with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, boasts as one of the world’s best. It was a comprehensive programme where I was given the opportunity to learn about the presentation and management of children with blood cancers. I was exposed to working in multidisciplinary settings with surgeons, haematologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists and pathologists, all working towards diagnosing and treating children newly diagnosed with cancer, especially with haematological malignancies.

The programme has a long tradition of clinical trials – where breakthrough drugs are tested – and most of their patients are offered such trials. I was expected to learn the background of these trials and be able to explain these to families.

The day would start at about 7am. For one of the patients, I would collate the latest observations and review any changes or progress made overnight. At 7.30am, we had a very informative teaching session on the basic understanding, treatment and possible complications of different cancers in children. A great deal of emphasis was placed on education in the department, with daily tutorials for medical students and interns and it was indeed a privilege to be a part of it. Furthermore, the library at Children’s had an impressive selection of books and all the latest journals, which I was able to peruse to consolidate my learning.

At 8am, a Haematology/ Oncology physician would conduct the “Family Centred Ward Rounds”. The theory is to ensure complete honesty with parents and allow them to raise any concerns they may have had about their child’s condition and progress, and clarify any doubts. Most importantly, I was expected to have grasped communication skills, in a high-pressure situation, as the attending physicians and fellows communicated the diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of children to many distraught families.

The afternoons would generally be spent following up patients on the ward or clerking new admissions. The experience of caring for patients at Children’s not only taught me about the medical aspects of patient care, but also the complex interaction of social and psychosocial aspects in managing patients. I particularly enjoyed the Pet Therapy sessions by the hospital’s “Paw Friends” and the daily activities for the inpatients, such as tie-dye classes and cupcake decorating. A couple of patients on palliative care were given the opportunity to have “day-offs” where they were able to fulfill their make-a-wish list. Doctors and nurses alike showed great empathy and formed strong bonds with their patients and it was certainly awe-inspiring.

Reflecting on my time at Boston, I believe I have achieved all the aims I had set out for myself for this elective. Before I left for my elective, I had concluded that I would use this time to explore my career interests in Paediatric Oncology and to refine my emerging clinical skills in a new and different environment. I wanted it to be a period where I could indulge myself in an area of medicine that I was interested in, by developing my knowledge in a niche field, and with a discernible progression of my clinical skills when dealing with children and parents. The clerkship at Boston Children’s Hospital was the perfect avenue to take charge of my own learning, while harnessing a range of generic skills.

In the end, I had an amazing, eye-opening elective where I consolidated my application of clinical medicine while having had the chance to explore a breath-taking city. As a final year medical student, this elective was the last significant break from education that I’d have for a few years. I was keen not to waste this opportunity to travel, to recharge, be amazed and maybe inspired, and ready for postgraduate training. I placed this search for balance at the center of my elective planning and I could not have asked for a better time at Harvard! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will treasure throughout my medical career.

As I approach the end of medical school, I believe I have found my passion. As a cancer survivor myself, it is my fervent hope that this Oncology elective, made possible by the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research’s Elective Bursary, in a world renowned centre will one day help me defy insurmountable odds to advance the interest of Paediatric cancer patients across borders.

I would like to thank the Leukaemia Lymphoma &  Research for their generous bursary, which made this elective a reality. I would also like to thank my family for all their love and support throughout.

If you've recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and have yet to receive treatment you could be eligible to take part in a new clincial trial. Read more here.