Winship multiple myeloma expert Dr. Sagar Lonial has seen hundreds of patients through the ups and downs of treatment and recovery, and has pioneered many new drug therapies that have changed the course of survival for multiple myeloma patients. He found his sense of purpose early in his career, seeing discoveries in the lab benefit the patients he was caring for and knowing that his research was intimately tied to their struggles.
But it wasn’t until he became a patient himself that he gained full insight into how purpose drives the trajectory of a patient’s journey. Late in 2013, Dr. Lonial sustained a fall that resulted in severely broken bones requiring surgery, hospitalization and months of physical therapy.
Lonial wrote about this insight in a recently published essay. Here is an excerpt from his story:
Recently, I experienced a medical issue that allowed me to experience the importance of purpose from the other side of the stethoscope. While it was in no way analogous to what my patients go through during the rigors of aggressive therapy or a transplant (I lay in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to repair broken bones), I felt a strong need to push my recovery.
There were numerous cards and notes from my patients, friends, and family urging me to get better. This showering of prayers and positive energy was humbling but also provided my motivation. That first day it was a small step—sitting up on the side of the bed by my own power—but it was an important step.
I had to get back to work. I had patients waiting on me, willing me to get better. I could not leave them in the lurch. Each day as I worked to regain strength and mobility and to keep my spirits up, it was this purpose—to get back to helping my patients—that drove me to push through my pain and physical setbacks. Purpose provided me with motivation, and, at the same time, it was a powerful analgesic.
It’s exciting to do what I do. I feel very fortunate to be able to share in the lives of patients in their journeys, and to be a part of a system that offers them new hope. I consider my patients to be my friends, and when I meet them I try to understand what the purpose is that motivates them. I use that unique motivation when times are tough.
On my worst clinic days when a friend has died, I go back to the lab and try to understand how I can do better. The ability to do more than what we can do today, to understand more than what we understand today, serves more than solace and comfort—it provides additional purpose.
I hate to lose and I hate losing friends even more, so “making science work for patients” is how I fight back. It’s not always enough but it keeps me hopeful and allows me to give hope to my friends.
This essay is excerpted, with permission of the author, from The Big Casino: America’s Best Cancer Doctors Share Their Most Powerful Stories, a collection of 40 essays chronicling the extraordinary experiences of patients battling this life-changing disease. Co-author Stanley Winokur, MD, a retired oncologist who practiced in Atlanta for many years, explains that “the big casino” was a phrase sometimes used by doctors in referring to cancer and that the book is an effort “to put a human face and a human heart on this most feared of maladies.” Winship’s deputy director, Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, also contributed a moving essay to the book.
About Dr. Lonial
Dr. Sagar Lonial is Vice Chair of Clinical Affairs for the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, and Director of the Translational Research for the B-Cell Malignancy Program. He is also a professor in the Emory University School of Medicine.
Dr. Lonial’s research focuses on combination therapy in B-cell malignancies focusing on myeloma. He is a trained bone marrow transplant physician with an interest in molecular therapy for lymphoma and myeloma. His clinical interests include evaluating the combination of new molecular targeted agents for B-cell tumors as well as target discovery and validation.
Dr. Lonial has authored or coauthored over 200 publications and recently was awarded the Celgene ‘Young Investigator’ Award, the MMRF ‘Top 15 Innovator’ Award, and the MMRC ‘Center of the Year’ award.
He earned his medical degree from the University Of Louisville School Of Medicine. He completed his internship and residency at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, followed by a fellowship in Hematology/Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.