Spend a few minutes with Wendy Woods-Swafford MD., M.P.H., and you quickly sense just how deep her commitment runs. For her, being a physician isn’t just about doing the job well, it’s more about the crucial role a physician plays in guiding a patient and family through the course of their care and beyond. Wendy, thanks for sharing a little bit of your journey with us…we’re all better for it.
"The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire."
— Ferdinand Foch
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A little chat with Wendy Woods-Swafford, MD...
You had an interesting perspective for how we physicians should define success. What would you like others to take away from this piece.
Dr. Woods-Swafford: When I talk with medical students and residents about their career path, I often ask them how they define success now and how they will define success at the end of their profession. It is interesting to hear their description of success. I think it's important to have realistic expectations of ourselves. Most pediatric oncologists are ambitious, competitive doctors who strive for success in all that they do. If I chose to use “cure” as a measure of success, I would fail 20% of the time (as overall childhood cancer survival is 80%). I don’t know many physicians who could stomach failing 20% of the time. Instead of cure, I choose to focus on the journey for our patients and families. If we cure cancer but in the process destroy the foundation of a child’s family or leave that child with deficits (physical, academic, etc) and have not provided the support they need to overcome these – have we really “won”?
Some say physcians could benefit from additional training in palliative care. As a certified palliative care physician, how has this knowledge helped you partner with patients and families even in cases that do not require end-of-life care?
Dr. Woods-Swafford: I believe my palliative care experience has helped me care for my patients – in greater depth and breadth. Pain and symptom management is often overlooked due to more pressing disease related problems or complications. When I am taking care of a complicated hospitalized patient and I have reviewed and “wrapped up” my plan of interventions for the day, I always ask them, “what is one thing I could do today that would help you feel better, no matter how big or small?” The answers amaze me and are often so simple: "can I take this medication as a pill — the liquid tastes horrible" or "can I go to the top floor and see the sunlight." These are small examples, but palliative training is not about end of life care discussions and dying – it is about enhancing the time we spend living.
It was a privilege to spend time with you and your patients, and it's clear that you love your work. What do you value most about being a physician?
Dr. Woods-Swafford: I value and respect the opportunity we have to build trusting relationships with our patients and families while doing a job that I love.