Leaders, Teachers, Healers

Meet Kathleen Beekman, MD, Medical Director of Infusion and Genetic Services, Saint Joseph Mercy Health System

Tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up in Michigan, one of five kids.  I went to medical school and did my residency at the University of Michigan and earned an Oncology Fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering.  I live with my husband, who is a hand surgeon, and our three children in an 1880s Victorian home that we restored.

How did you choose your specialty?
It came down to a combination of two things.  The first is that with oncology you have the chance to build relationships with your patients and the second is that oncology patients have a level of complexity that I find challenging.  Since my internship, I’ve always loved taking patient histories and hearing how they describe their symptoms.  Knowing how their symptoms connect to the latest knowledge of the disease and treatment is key to helping them.  There’s always something new to learn and ways to improve care and outcomes for patients.

For example, when I first started practicing, I inherited a patient from a retiring oncologist.  The patient was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and was given less than a year to live after undergoing all the treatment options available.  Within a few months of meeting with her, a new drug came out.  We tried it and it worked for almost 2 years.  Then a second new treatment became an option, and that worked for another 2 years.  It’s been more than five years, and she is still alive and doing well because we continue to learn more about the disease and how to treat it.

How long have you been with St. Joe’s?  What drew you here and what keeps you here?
I came to St. Joe’s in the fall of 2008.  I was drawn here because I believe it’s a place where you get the best physicians in their field looking for a community practice.  The thing that keeps me here, that I’ve been most impressed with, is the collaboration between the physicians with each other and with administration; we work well together as a team devoted to providing excellent care.

What is most important to you about your work?
One of the things that I’ve learned to do better which has made a difference in my practice is to slow down and be fully present with patients.

How would you describe your philosophy of care?
It shouldn’t be work to be a patient – we should be there, be a helping hand for patients, guiding them and easing the burden of having cancer.  We need to stay cognizant of that in everything we do.

What is on the horizon for your program and field of medicine?
Advances in treatments and continued improvement in prognoses.  Some examples are the progress with immunotherapy and genetics.  I’ve seen so many dramatic changes, even just since I finished my fellowship in 2005.  For example, there was no option for treating kidney cancer and now we have several.  As recent as 2013, patients with multiple myeloma were given the prognosis of 1-2 years and today it’s increased to 5-10 years in some cases a normal life expectancy.

This means so much to patients and their families.  I’m currently treating a patient with lung cancer using immunotherapy.  His wife’s first husband died from lung cancer.  When they received his diagnosis, she suffered an episode of PTSD-like stress thinking she would have to face it all again.  I saw them this week.  He has no evidence of cancer and is off all therapy.  She keeps saying “it’s a miracle.” It’s really gratifying to be part of that.

How do you describe the role of philanthropy in the work you do, at the hospital and in our communities?
Philanthropy allows us to provide the delivery of care in environments that are more comfortable for patients and also allows us to explore programming that doesn’t always pay for itself in revenue but does in patient satisfaction and experience.

I didn’t grow up in a family that had the means to support philanthropic interests in any major way but I have learned a lot from my patients and families who also don’t come from means but see philanthropy as an important part of their role in society and a way to give back to their community.  It’s really inspiring.  I’m hopeful that the Life is Remarkable campaign will highlight what a gem we have in our Cancer Program and encourage people to support our program which will allow us to expand our services and elevate the program even more.

What was your second choice for a career?
In my third year of college, I was thinking about law school and doing something with disability law.  I happened to go to dinner with a neurologist and told him what I was thinking and that I had worked all through high school and summers of college with a group home near my parents’ home.  He wondered why I just wouldn’t be the DOCTOR for people with disabilities…that got me thinking.  Turned out I loved organic chemistry which is this crazy screen for medical school applicants and the rest is history.

What are your favorite activities?
I’ve always been a runner and have run a few marathons, I liked being able to set goals not related to work and staying focused on good fitness.  The last couple of years, I have started practicing Vinyasa yoga – my new goal is to hold a handstand for more than three seconds. It’s tricky!!

What are your favorite things to do in your “spare” time?
I spend most of my time outside of work with my family.  I have three busy kids so I watch a lot of figure skating, hockey, and basketball games.  We’re big on board games.  And, we like being active and spending time outdoors, biking, snow skiing, and water skiing.  I also love to garden.  I plant a lot of flowers and can spend way too much money at the nursery.

What is your favorite movie?  What is your favorite book?
When I was younger my mother would rent the old reel to reel movies from the local library.  My favorite was the old cartoon version of The Hobbit.  I still love watching it.  My favorite books are “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith, and the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling.  Right now, I’m reading the “Game of Thrones” series by George R. R. Martin.  I want to read them all before I watch the TV show.

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