President, Lubbock-Crosby-Garza County Medical Association
Dr. Vugrin's story below describes one of the best rewards of being a physician — saving and improving patients' lives, even the lives of individuals of whom he or she might be unaware. This column was first published in the Lubbock-Crosby-Garza County Medical Society newsletter.
As a growing young boy I observed and studied the world around me with fascination and intense curiosity. One day after observing all kinds of living creatures I asked my father: "Dad, what is the purpose of (our) life?' He smiled knowingly and said: "Well, it all depends on what you make out of it."
During the summer between my 1st and 2nd year of medical school, I volunteered working on the medical floors in a hospital. I was surprised to see a number of young people, some younger, some older then I and some much younger, just kids, being admitted to the hospital with the diagnosis of "cancer." Sometimes the diagnosis was lymphoma, or leukemia or other types of cancer.
At that time, there were very few effective treatments for advanced cancers, and most cancers were advanced by the time they were diagnosed. These young people were wasting away in front of my eyes and dying. "Young people are not supposed to die. They are supposed to grow old. Only old people die" I thought in disbelief. It was at that time that I decided that I would train to become a cancer specialist once I completed my medical school education. In the enthusiasm of my youth I decided to devote my life to "saving the world" from cancer and helping to find the cure for cancer. I was determined to make a difference!
Several years later and a world away, after completing my service in the US Air Force, I was accepted into the hematology fellowship training program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. All I was interested in was to study the control of malignant diseases. By that time, through advances in research, we started controlling and curing acute leukemia, Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in those young age groups that previously I had seen dying from these diseases like flies. This strengthened my belief that we could improve the world and make it a better and a safer place to live.
In the pursuit of my life mission, subsequently, I took fellowship training in medical oncology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. A NFL Grant in honor of Brian Piccolo funded my research fellowship. He was a football player in Chicago who developed germ cell cancer in the chest and succumbed to it for lack of effective treatments. The NFL was funding research to find a cure for this cancer. When my mentor suddenly left, I was asked to take his position and lead and direct a group conducting clinical and basic research in germ cell cancers. This type of cancer most frequently originates in testicles of young men between ages of 15 and 35 years of age and until then it had been the most common cause of cancer death in young men. Our research program attracted desperate young men with testis cancer from all over the world. Because of this program, at our institution you would think that this was one of most common cancers around judging by the number of patients that we saw. That was also the time when those of us at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and investigators at Indiana University made a breakthrough in the treatments of these cancers. Germ cell cancer became one of the most curable cancers even in its most advanced stages. Our two groups received plenty of recognition from around the world.
However, the recognition that I personally appreciated the most was one event that occurred in early June few years back. At the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, I was approached by an oncologist who asked me:
"Dr. Vugrin, do you know who I am? You treated my brother from Brazil who was diagnosed with terminal testis cancer 28 years ago and you cured him. He is alive and well living in Sao Paolo. He is married with children and very successful in his profession. I was inspired by what happened. I went to medical school and became an oncologist and I am helping others just like you did. Do you remember Doctor S. who trained under you? He is a very famous oncologist in Brazil."
It is a good feeling to know that one's efforts have directly and indirectly populated the world with cancer survivors of whom many have become important and productive members of their communities around the world. It further strengthened my own belief that we all can make a difference in someone's life. Sometimes, we don't know the good results of all of our efforts.
We physicians make differences in people's lives.
We all make differences in people's lives, again, and again and again.