South Texan children with cancer and blood disorders benefit from doctors’ dedication and expertise
When you visit Driscoll Children's Cancer and Blood Disorder Center, you enter a bubble. It’s not just the kind that protects immunocompromised kids from outside germs. It’s a place where everyone inside feels a little more alive. More aware of what really matters. More conscious of beauty. More generous of spirit.
Those fortunate enough to spend time with children and families at Driscoll Children’s Hospital are strengthened by their work. The staff witness stunning testimonies of courage and resilience every day.
“We see them on the worst days of their lives, and somehow they're able to keep going,” says Dr. Catherine Boston, pediatric hematologist oncologist, “I've learned never to take anything for granted. That you never know how much time you have with family or friends and to not sweat the small stuff. I've learned to look for beauty in everything and just to be grateful for each moment.”
Most moments at Driscoll, though, aren’t so serious. Every space in the hospital is filled with bright colors and bustles with energy. Toys for all ages decorate rooms, therapy dogs meander through hallways, visitors entertain children and patients bounce around the floor trailed by infusion pumps.
It’s the energy and resilience in kids, in spite of serious diagnoses, that attracts many of the doctors at Driscoll to pediatrics.
“When I see the joy on these children's faces, it makes all of the bad news discussions and all of the difficult days that we spend together worth it because I know they're still able to smile and look forward to things. If I can help in some small way to put that smile on their faces, then I've done my job at the end of the day,” says Dr. Boston.
Still, some days at work can be gut wrenching. There are times when pediatric hematology oncologist, Dr. Nkechi Mba, returns to her office, puts her head down and cries. Usually this comes after delivering a cancer diagnosis – one part of the job that every staff member at Driscoll Children’s Hospital dreads.
“The diagnosis blindsides you,” says Dr. Mba. “It’s life-changing news for any parent to hear that their child has cancer. It’s one word that changes their lives.”
Once the team gets past relaying derailing news, they move on to what they do best – ensuring that every child has access to cutting-edge treatment and continuous care. It’s the power of what the Driscoll team achieves for kids that makes the job worthwhile. “To be able to see a child get back to being a child, to school, to planning prom, to talking about graduation, talking about their future, and also having them come back so you can actually see the full spectrum. Those are all the things that are very rewarding about this work,” says Dr. Mba.
Dr. Catherine Boston says, “The goal is that their life doesn't stop when they have cancer, and that once they're finished with their cancer, they can continue to grow to live a normal life.”
At Driscoll, every patient and family in the Cancer and Blood Disorder Center is treated with the highest level of Care, Access, Passion and Excellence.
We asked physicians in our oncology unit what these four values mean to them. They impart a passion not just for medicine, but for children, community and for research. They share a mission to change the world, one child at a time.
Driscoll Children’s Hospital serves a vast area across South Texas. But the feeling within the hospital walls is like family. Dr. Farha Sherani, an oncology attending doctor, says, “Families should expect the quality of care that's on par with the rest of the country with a small and close knit family feel. Everybody from the front desk person where you check in until the person checking you out gives you personalized attention.”
Dr. Catherine Boston says, “The patients know that we're invested in their care. They know all of the doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. They could talk to any of us, and we would know what's going on with their child.”
Working in pediatrics means more than just providing medical care. It means supporting every aspect of a child’s physical and emotional growth and development. Ensuring that kids are happy is part of the job description. “We really want to help the kids have fun and be kids as long as they can be. Families see that we love children. On a normal day, people will be escorting each other with water guns or putting fake roaches on doctors. All of that is to put a smile on the children's faces,” says Dr. Boston.
Pediatric oncologist Dr. Ndina Nhlane says, “We try to create this environment where kids feel at home, and they don't have to feel burdened with their diagnosis.”
This sentiment isn’t always the case at bigger hospitals. Dr. Nhlane says, “The thing about huge hospitals is that patients see a lot of physicians. Driscoll has that small hospital feel where patients see the same physicians and nurses all the time. Over a period of time they have this sense of belonging and being part of this small family.”
Patients’ connection with the Driscoll team doesn’t end when kids are discharged. It’s not unusual for doctors to attend birthday parties, graduations and weddings. “Whenever I'm invited, I always try to go,” says Dr. Boston.
The close-knit community at Driscoll is by design. Our comprehensive team includes social workers, case managers, child life specialists, oncology nurses and physicians. The team meets at least twice a week to ensure they’re meeting the needs of every active patient, both medically and holistically. Dr. Farha Sherani says, “We like to treat the whole family because we recognize that some of the diagnoses that we treat really disrupt regular family life. The better we know our patients, the more resources we're able to advocate for and then offer to those patients.”
The close bond staff form with families makes the harder parts of the job worthwhile. Dr. Nkechi Mba says, “I don't know that there's any other career path that would've given me this opportunity to form such close bonds and relationships with the people that I'm taking care of.”
Dr. Boston views that connection as nothing less than changing the world. “They're always going to remember us from the worst days when they get diagnosed, but also on the best days when they beat cancer. Their families know that we're supported when they do things like graduate from high school or are finally able to play baseball again.”
Driscoll’s Cancer and Blood Disorder Center serves families throughout South Texas . Physicians travel weekly between three clinics in Corpus Christi, McAllen and Brownsville so that children can access care as close to home as possible. As the referral center for all of South Texas, Driscoll’s patients live in a 33,000 square mile area, including Corpus Christi, Victoria, Laredo and throughout the Valley.
Being located so close to the border means that patients come from Mexico and even from around the world. “If you come here in an emergency, I don't care where you're from,” says Dr. Catherine Boston. “We've had patients that walked through Africa to get to us and come to the border dying. They're in a shelter, their families know we don't have records and we treat them.”
Dr. Farha Sherani says Driscoll will never turn a child away. “Once you are here, we will take care of you. We would fight to make sure that we take care of anyone who comes to our door regardless of the circumstances.”
Dr. Ndina Nhlane says, “We don't look at the means the family has in terms of the care they should be receiving. The department really tries hard to treat every patient whether they have the means to pay for treatment or not.”
Geographical access to care is a key goal for the Driscoll team as well. This is why we have three points of services and a goal to build more clinics in the future. Dr. Sherani says, “It's bad enough that a child has cancer. We want to limit the disruption on the family, the parents' job and the other siblings.”
In spite of the vast number of patients Driscoll serves, getting to know each one improves access to care and outcomes. Dr. Sherani says, “Our accessibility to our patients and families sets us apart from other institutions. They know who to call for medical issues during the day and during the night. They know that no question is too small.”
To Dr. Boston, this level of care, regardless of background or ability to pay, changes lives. “We change the world by allowing families that otherwise would not be able to get medical care to have the same cure rate and treatment as they would at any other hospital in the country.”
It takes a special person to choose to work in pediatric oncology, and Driscoll’s team is made up of the very best. In residency at Yale, Dr. Catherine Boston says, “I realized what a special field it is to be able to support their families at the most difficult point in time.”
Physicians in Driscoll’s Cancer and Blood Disorder Center are not only passionate about helping their patients, but they’re also committed to improving treatment and outcomes for all children with cancer and blood disorders.
Dr. Fahra Sherani says, “The amount of strides that we've made in curing childhood cancer in the last 40 years alone is incredible. Somehow, it's not common knowledge and not as well funded as it should be at the federal and state levels. To be involved in a field where you can really achieve these beautiful cure rates and apply that bench research to bedside clinical care as a standard of care is amazing. That's the reason I wake up every day. I need to come in, and I need to do that.”
Working in this subspeciality goes hand-in-hand with spreading awareness about pediatric cancer and blood disorders and advocating for more research funding. Dr. Boston says, “As professionals, it's our duty to spread the word that children do get cancer, and that children get different kinds of cancers than adults. There's not enough funding for pediatric cancer, and we need to change that. Children are the future.”
Dr. Nkechi Mba entered the field of hematology oncology after a family member was affected by a severe blood disorder and did not survive. “Recognizing that there had been so many advances in medicine and that I could actually make a difference encouraged me to continue along this path,” she says.
Ensuring her patients have the best possible care, treatment and outcomes is what makes Dr. Mba passionate about her work. She becomes so invested in her active patients that her kids sometimes say she loves her patients more than them. “It’s a very nurturing relationship. I feel very protective about my patients. It feels like they're part of my family. They're actually a big part of who I am.”
Speaking for her colleagues, Dr. Mba adds, “That's what it feels like for most of us that do this.”
Cancer is a devastating diagnosis for the families who experience it and the providers who care for them. But the rewards of supporting a family in their most difficult time and then shepherding them through it are unimaginable. “We say that a child that is cured of cancer is able to get their whole life back,” says Dr. Mba, “Being part of that fight and that journey is one of the things that make me passionate.”
Driscoll’s vast service area means that we see a big variety of cancer and blood disorder cases. Patients benefit from the team's breadth of knowledge, as well as from our contribution to cancer treatment around the world.
Because childhood cancers are so rare, research and funding is limited. But for children and their families experiencing cancer, research and clinical trials can be life-saving. That’s why we are committed to supporting patients with cutting-edge treatment and then contributing to that research to benefit others.
Driscoll’s Cancer and Blood Disorder Center is part of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), the world’s largest organization that conducts clinical research to improve the care and treatment of children with cancer. Research from COG has changed childhood cancer from an almost incurable disease 50 years ago to a survival rate of almost 80 percent today. As one of 230 member institutions in COG, we’re able to offer patients the opportunity to participate in clinical trials, including Phase 2-4 therapeutic, non-therapeutic, biology and long-term follow-up studies. Dr. Nkechi Mba says, “We stay right at the forefront of everything that is happening in childhood cancer and blood disorders.”
Participating in clinical trials and contributing to the body of cancer and blood disorder research has a global impact. While treating patients, doctors at Driscoll are also able to advance research at the same time. Dr. Mba says, “Childhood oncology is evolving very quickly. Being part of the fight and part of finding a cure for cancer is very exciting.”
For Driscoll patients, this means accessing cutting-edge research and treatment close to home. Dr. Mba says, “Typically to be part of a clinical trial or research, patients have to travel out of their community. The fact that we have the ability to have our patients not just undergo cancer treatment, but also be part of childhood cancer research that has been shown to help with advances in cancer treatment, in itself is something very amazing.”
Treatment for pediatric cancer and blood disorders improves every day as doctors around the world collaborate to enroll children in clinical trials and report results. Dr. Catherine Boston says, “A lot of things are happening in our field where treatment is getting better and better. It’s much less toxic, we’re using the immune system and using targeted therapies.”
The diverse background of the clinicians at Driscoll elevates the level of care families experience. Dr. Boston says, “All of the providers have come from different areas of the country and the world and are trained at top academic institutions. Everybody brings a different perspective, which combined helps us to take even better care of our patients.”
Doctors at Driscoll all share patients, rather than assigning active patients to one specific provider. This allows for each patient to get four second opinions in the process of a diagnosis or a treatment plan. “We have to come up with a plan that we can all agree on. Oftentimes, medicine is an art. It's not all based on guidelines or protocol. And so it calls for a higher standard of care when we have to justify to each other which way we want to go,” says Dr. Mba.
With care, access, passion and excellence, Dr. Fahra Sherani says the team at Driscoll is not just saving and improving children’s lives; they’re changing the world, “We’re adding knowledge to future physicians on how to cure childhood cancer every day by taking care of kids. And that's a big deal.”