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People Talk: A conversation with Dr. Lorna Fitzpatrick

Dr. Lorna Fitzpatrick, 44, was born in Belfast before her family moved to Ballycastle on the north shore of Ireland. Her father was a physician who moved his family to Buffalo in 1973 to take a job at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Fitzpatrick, who was a preschooler at the time, can still recall her first crossing of the Peace Bridge.

She grew up in Hamburg, and attended Nardin Academy and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine. Today, she works as a pediatric oncologist at Women & Children’s Hospital, where she is focused on treating children with brain tumors.She is also a clinical associate professor at the medical school.

Fitzpatrick lives in Buffalo with her husband and their four children ages 14, 12, 11 and 9.

People Talk: Why did you choose pediatric oncology?

LF: To be honest, my heart’s been in pediatric oncology since medical school. I love the long-term relationships I have with the families. I keep in touch with almost all the families I’ve taken care of, and I keep in touch with families of the kids who passed away. You get entrenched in a family, and you try to do everything you can to support them, a lot of primary care, a lot of night phone calls. They are wonderful families to be imbedded in. They change your life.

PT: Do you spend more time with the families than the patient?

LF: It depends on the age. The teenagers I love. They think of everyone else but themselves, which is not what you would expect. It’s surprising. They worry about their moms. They are resilient. They continue their lives. They continue their social lives.

PT: Why are teenagers so strong?

LF: They are amazing. They do things I would never in any way think anyone could do. They go to college through treatment. They study for exams. They’re the strongest people you could ever meet. So it’s fun for me to hear from them. They call my cellphone with questions. “I want to go bowling. Is that OK with my mediport?” “What about skiing?” I think they need just a little reassurance. The teenagers also have a lot more quiet talks where they want to understand what might happen. I think it’s to protect their family. I also think most will pretend it’s OK to their family, but they need an outlet to talk to. There’s a lot of tears in those talks.

PT: Tell me about your teen mentor program.

LF: At their request, I set up a mentor group for patients. The teenagers wanted to mentor the younger kids ages 5 to 12, which is amazing. First of all I think it’s good for families to see young adults who have survived. We do things like apple picking. We go to the zoo. We went to a baseball game. My oldest son comes with me to volunteer.

PT: How do you connect with your patients?

LF: There’s a breakthrough with all of them, even those who are stubborn and who don’t want to talk about anything. With the younger kids, it may be playing a video with them. It just takes a lot of sitting down and talking. Ultimately they need to trust me and what I’m doing. It’s very important to know who the family wants around because going through this is a family experience.

PT: How do you deal with stress?

LF: I did have a hard time in the beginning when I first started to deal with children, a lot of whom were dying. It was excruciating. When my oldest son was born, I had some patients who were the same age. I remember one patient who I just adored. Caitlin was a beautiful infant who passed away. You can see the raw pain that parents feel. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what role I have in that pain and how I can help. I’ve gotten beyond the fact that families are mad at me because they’re not.

PT: How do you heal yourself?

LF: I take great comfort in knowing I’ve done everything I possibly can. I have a beautiful little one who’s going through it now. I make sure I’m always available, whatever I need to do to make sure the passing that I cannot control anymore is peaceful and without pain. The patients going through it themselves are hugely supportive in the sense they are upbeat and positive. There’s rarely any complaining.

PT: What about the children who don’t make it?

LF: They stay with you always. I can honestly say that probably five or six times a day I feel one saying something to me. You lose a little bit of your heart each time. There’s no question about it; I feel closer to the families.

PT: You’ve got a lot of stuff to deal with.

LF: My kids know. They’ve met some of the kids. They know life can change on a dime.

PT: Do your patients understand cancer?

LF: Yes. We teach them about it in age appropriate ways, but I can tell you they get it more deeply than that. I can’t explain how I know. Everyone thinks my job is depressing and it’s not. I love it. You couldn’t do this and be depressed about it. You get a lot of strength from the patients. You have to love what you do, and put your whole heart into it. Then it’s not depressing.

PT: Professionally, what is your short-term goal?

LF: Continue to do what I do. I want to establish a bereavement group for patients and better support services. I’m really excited about what we’re doing in Guyana. It’s a place that has no pediatric oncology services at all. We have about eight patients down there where they were never treating any pediatric oncology patients at all. I want my students to get an international experience because life is so global now. We’re going down there next month with a team of four. My goal is not to always treat but to educate the doctors. It’s coming along and I am excited about that.

PT: Do you take your job home with you?

LF: I don’t feel a constant stress. I’ve been given the ability to turn it off, even when my phone’s on and I’m waiting for a patient call I can turn it off and be with the kids or on vacation. The kids know when I’m worried about a patient, but I want them to know there’s more to life than horseback riding and school.

PT: What part of your job could you do without?

LF: Paperwork. Everything we do must be documented. I’m not a great typer. It takes a lot of Saturday mornings to get that done. I am also responsible for the pediatric residents here. I love the teaching part of it. I have a great life.