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Challenging medical journey forms bonds between provider, patient family

Wednesday, November 30, 2016
By William Stagg, Jr.
Sarah Smith, Timothy Driscoll

Duke's Timothy Driscoll, MD, and the Smith family have shared a decade-long journey of despair, hope, despair again, and hope rekindled that most people cannot begin to imagine. 

To call it simply the journey of a pediatric bone marrow transplant specialist and his young patient and her heartsick family is to barely scratch the surface of the mutual respect and devotion that sprouted during Sarah Smith's treatment for Stage IV neuroblastoma, a largely fatal pediatric cancer.

Driscoll today remains a part of Sarah's life, not only as a Duke doctor living the value of caring for our patients, their loved ones, and each other, but also as the father of a college student himself – who, like Sarah, attends Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., and who was moving in on the same day that the Smiths were moving Sarah in. The reunion on campus was emotional, and crowned Sarah's longtime dream of going to college. She started a "Calage and Car Fund" in her hospital room shortly after word came of her relapse.

"What she could never have dreamed or planned or imagined was that on her first day as a resident college student, she would have the privilege of standing next to her doctor and friend from the darkest years of her life; the one who had treated her disease, hugged her mom, comforted her dad, talked with her brother, and prayed for the whole family at their very lowest times," Sarah's mother, Becky, wrote in an article submitted to The Community Counts, the monthly newsletter for Duke Pediatric Bone and Marrow Transplant Program (PBMT) patients, families and supporters. "We could have never organized such a momentous day on our own; we could have never known that on that first day of Sarah's college future, she would be standing next to the man who'd helped save her life."

Becky stayed with Sarah for a month in Duke University Hospital (DUH) during her bone marrow transplant. Driscoll, she wrote, came by at all hours of the day and night, dispensing medical care, comfort, and advice. 

"Dr. Driscoll and the other doctors and nurses who walk the halls of that transplant floor go to work every day knowing that many of their patients will not survive," she wrote. "… I know it had to have broken Dr. Driscoll's heart the day he called us with the news that Sarah had relapsed. . . He walked with our family through the heartache of the following weeks and months and saw us through to the other side."   

There was little chance of Sarah's long-term survival. But she's alive, and the emotional bond remains strong with Driscoll and the other caregivers at DUH. 

"I consider myself blessed to have been treated at Duke Hospital, and I know my family feels the same way," Sarah said. "After 14 years, we can still remember so many kind-hearted people who worked there. Whether I saw them daily in my bone marrow transplant room or just once for bloodwork or a scan, the medical personnel who cared for me were always so compassionate and made every effort to bring a smile to an underweight, bald, little girl's face. Duke Hospital brought extra doses of hope to our lives when we needed it the most and my family and I will always be so thankful."

Adds Becky, "Having a stem cell transplant is not for the faint of heart, especially for a child who is only six years old. But because of Dr. Driscoll and the top notch, compassionate care that he and his team provided, Sarah and our family survived the worst season of our lives. We are grateful to be living our lives on the other side of pediatric cancer – thanks to Duke."

Driscoll said PBMT's two guiding principles for patient care are The Golden Rule and the understanding that it takes a team. 

"We treat our patients and their families as we would want our children to be treated by providing effective treatment while minimizing discomfort and unwanted side effects," he said. "And it truly takes a team to maximize treatment effectiveness and safety while minimizing discomfort."

Integrating the patient and parents as part of the care team requires ongoing education and clear discussion among team members with the goal of minimizing discomfort and anxiety while allowing the early recognition of undesired side effects and early intervention, Driscoll added. 

"It is important that the emotional and physical welfare of all team members, which includes the caretakers, are regularly addressed by the team to ensure the best possible outcome for the patient," he said.  

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