The toddler boy smiled and laughed as his big brother pushed him up and down the hospital hallways on a small red riding toy. Around and around he went, enjoying each moment to the fullest. The only reason to stop? Chocolate ice cream in the play room.
At OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, part of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, where some children receive treatment for life-threatening illnesses and face adult-like situations, staff members do everything they can to make sure the kids feel like kids. Bingo games (where everybody’s a winner), music programs, wagon rides, art opportunities and a classroom right in the hospital give the children a sense of normalcy during what could be the most frightening, tense moments. There, staff members want the children to feel comfortable, at ease. Even the play room is a restricted area: “No white coats allowed.”
But of course this is a hospital, so those “white coats” are everywhere. And some of them wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for Kiwanis.
Kiwanis’ hand in the care of children at Doernbecher began with its support of the hospital as part of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. In the early ’90s, children needing bone marrow transplants in the Portland area were sent to children’s hospitals in Seattle and San Francisco. Kiwanis members recognized a need for a bone marrow transplant program a little closer to home. So they stepped in, raised money and made a change.
Then, in 1999, Kiwanians were called upon for a bigger challenge.
“The physician-in-chief at the time was Len Johnson, and he came to us and said that their needs had changed again,” recalls Kiwanian Dave Edwards. “They thought it was more important to fund education.”
So instead of raising funds for machines or supplies or any other host of items, the Kiwanians stepped up to tackle a larger goal. They decided to fund a fellowship program to train doctors—men and women who would use the knowledge gained through the Kiwanis program to save children’s lives. And so the Kiwanis Doernbecher Children’s Cancer Program was born.
“As Kiwanians wanting to help kids with cancer, we could do a whole bunch of stuff,” says Edwards, a KDCCP board member. “We could hire musicians to walk up and down the halls and go into the rooms and play music for the kids, and that would have been good for the kids. We could have hired clowns to entertain the kids. We could have bought some medical equipment and put our name on it. But in the end, we decided that none of those things by themselves would help cure children of cancer. The only thing that we felt would make a significant impact was to make sure we had highly trained young doctors, men and women who came to the program from a rigorous selection process and then spent three or four years working as fellows at the hospital, becoming the next generation of pediatric oncologists.”
Training the Kiwanis fellows
The mission of the fellowship program is to train physicians in two things: the delivery of family-centered, state-of-the-art care and to become leaders in pediatric hematology/oncology.
Fellows have gone to medical school. When they’re done with medical school, they choose the specialty they want to train in, which is called a residency. In pediatrics, the residency is a three-year commitment. Then there’s an additional three years of training in pediatric hematology/oncology. All totaled after high school, that’s about 14 years of training.
The first year of the fellowship is dedicated to learning the clinical care of children with blood disorders. For the next two years, students hit the books. There’s lab research, clinical research, advocacy projects and educational projects. Fellows spend about 80 percent of their time studying and researching and the remaining time working in the clinic.
“Our goal is to produce people who are going to be on the cutting edge—who will produce the knowledge that’s going to help kids with these kinds of disorders in the future,” says Dr. Michael Recht, pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship director.
According to Recht, competition is stiff to get into the Doernbecher fellowship program. Each year, of the 100 to 110 fellowship positions that are open in pediatric hematology/oncology around the United States, the hospital gets about half of that number in applications for their two to three openings. All this competition leads to a reputable program, one that has produced national leaders in different aspects of hematology/oncology.
Recht agrees and points out the advances the Kiwanis fellows at Doernbecher have made.“The Kiwanians’ support of our cancer program here at Doernbecher really has been transformational,” said Dr. Stacy Nicholson, physician-in-chief. “The fellowship program, in particular, is directly attributable to the support the Kiwanians have given us. It certainly wouldn’t be as good and it may not even exist without that.”
“Stephen Roberts, who’s at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City, is one of the national leaders in clinical neuroblastoma, which is a type of tumor babies get,” he says. “Bill Chang, one of our former fellows and current faculty members, is doing some of the most exciting work on acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the most common type of cancer that children get.”
Current KDCCP fellow Dr. Thomas Russell is working many long hours behind a microscope, looking at sample after sample while also meeting with patients. He, too, is making advances that will change the face of medicine. Just recently, he met a 21-month-old patient at Doernbecher who has a very rare disease—one that has only been seen maybe 30 times in North America. Russell has worked on the past two cases involving this disease.
“I have become the western expert on a disease that we see in Asia more often and even there it’s quite rare,” Russell says. “And not by choice, either, did I become the expert on that. I think it speaks to the magnitude of what our facility offers.”
Russell, into his third year of the fellowship program, is visibly excited by the work he does.
“One of the things that happens at night is I get a call. There’s a kid with really low blood counts and fever and maybe there’s some abnormalities: leukemia,” he says. “And so I get to look at their blood under the microscope and identify if I see cells that are abnormal. It’s like this really surreal experience that I’ve been trained to do all that. Then I get to walk in their room and say, ‘OK, we’ve got this problem; now let’s fix it.’ It’s really quite gratifying.”
The program is touching not only patients and doctors in Portland. It’s reaching far beyond.
“Over a very short period of time, the fellows that we’ve sent out there are making a difference nationwide and worldwide,” Recht says.
Expanding the reach
Since the relationship began 25 years ago, the Kiwanians have raised more than US$3 million to support Doernbecher—including $188,000 each year since 1999 to fund two and a half Kiwanis fellows.
“When you look at a child and the child looks into your eyes and you realize what you’re doing has just made a difference in the life of that child, that’s priceless,” says KDCCP Board member Bob Munger. “Absolutely priceless.”
The program has been such a success that the hospital has asked Kiwanis to fund an additional position. That means raising an additional $75,000 each year—a significant amount, but not out of reach for this group of passionate Kiwanians.
Making a difference is exactly what the Kiwanians hope to do through the fellowship program.
Because they’ve already seen so much success, KDCCP board members are working to help create similar programs between other Pacific Northwest District Kiwanis clubs and local children’s hospitals. Children in Seattle, Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon just might see a doctor in their hometowns very soon who is being trained through a Kiwanis fellowship. And that’s exciting news.
Story by Jo Lynn Garing; Photos by Kasey Jackson
Stories produced by KIWANIS Magazine