I’ve been a physician at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since April 2008. I am thankful for many things in my life, and having the opportunity to care for people ranks near the very top of my list. I could have been an architect, but I probably wouldn’t have been a good one. At least that’s what an aptitude test administered by my high school guidance counselor revealed.
Rather than designing bridges or buildings, I chose the medical field and discovered that caring for patients was more than just showing up and punching a clock—it was about building relationships. I learned this at an early age, from the man who’s taught me most of what I know, my father.
After serving in World War II, my dad attended medical school on the GI bill and returned to practice medicine an hour south of his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, in mostly rural Covington County because it was an underserved area. As an 8-year-old, I built toy models in the back room of his office after school while he saw patients. Occasionally, I joined him on house calls to rural areas throughout South Mississippi. Sometimes our drive into the country would be on paved roads, sometimes it turned into dirt roads, and sometimes it turned into a little trail between the pine trees that led up to a small country house.
It fascinated me to see my father’s relationships with these patients, who often paid for his services in various forms of homegrown “currency”: meat from a hog, corn, watermelon, squash or zucchini. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, but observing my father fostered my interest in the field.
My primary duties at St. Jude involve the research efforts of St. Jude LIFE, a comprehensive study involving thousands of former childhood cancer patients who return to St. Jude periodically as adults to undergo health testing and screening. In addition, I see patients in our After Completion of Therapy Clinic who are long-term survivors of childhood cancer and were treated at St. Jude. My father—who is now 90 years old—and I still chat about medicine during frequent phone calls. Both he and my late mother were supporters of St. Jude long before I began working here, and they were excited when I began working at the hospital.
It was during my second year working at St. Jude that a young man visiting as part of the St. Jude LIFE study brought my past and my career together serendipitously. I walked into the clinic that day, held out my hand and introduced myself. The recipient of my greeting held onto my hand, looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you from South Mississippi?” I replied that I was.
He had recognized my name—three decades earlier, my father had diagnosed Hodgkin disease in the then–7-year-old boy. If that wasn’t a sign that I was in the right place, I couldn’t think of a better one.
I’m constantly reminded as I walk through the halls of St. Jude why I am so thankful to work here, a place where clinicians have access to the best resources to care for our patients and a place where relationships—between caregiver and patient, clinician and researcher, or parent and staff member—make all the difference.
Tim Folse, MD, is clinical director for the St. Jude LIFE and After Completion of Therapy Clinic Presented by Kmart.