When you sit down with Dr. Gail Megason, Director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at Batson Hospital for Children, one of the first things you notice is the level of dedication she brings to her work. The motivation and inspiration that drives her to cure disease is ever-present. Her office, located in the corner of the Cancer Clinic at Batson, holds stacks of medical journals, textbooks, and studies with the latest research about childhood cancer, leukemia, and sickle cell anemia.
For most people, working on a day-to-day basis in an environment where children are suffering from such diseases would be a difficult emotional challenge. The cheery, often-smiling Dr. Megason, however, radiates a perpetual and contagious positive outlook. The more you listen to her speak about her work, the more you realize the source of her enthusiasm: a passion for healing, a deep gratitude for those children’s lives that have been saved, and an unrelenting drive to improve the quality of life for children currently undergoing a health crisis.
“Pediatricians are born, not made,” says Megason. “It is a personality. It is a specific outlook, and a particular way of approaching things. Everyone who works in hematology and oncology at Batson has this inherent passion for helping children, from the seven attending physicians to the 45 employees that show up every day to serve families, combat disease, and manage the care of some very sick children.”
A native of Gulfport, Mississippi, Dr. Megason went to medical school and did her residency at University of Mississippi Medical Center. After further training at St. Jude in Memphis, and at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she returned to her home state. After a brief stint in private practice in Long Beach, Mississippi, Megason realized she wanted to return to a university hospital setting.
“There is just nothing like a university hospital,” Megason explains. “Where else can a person practice medicine, teach the up-and-coming physicians of tomorrow, and see today’s important medical research being developed to help sick children in the future? It really is a magical combination.”
At the invitation of her predecessor, Dr. Jeanette Pullen, the previous division director of Hematology and Oncology at Batson, Megason returned to UMC. She hasn’t regretted her decision for one moment, and has played a role in making medical history in the state of Mississippi ever since. In 1994, the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Program was established. “Before this, children in Mississippi would have to seek out such services outside the state,” she explains. “Since the program’s inception, we have done over 170 pediatric bone marrow transplants.”
In addition to bone marrow transplants, the other medical care and research within the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Division at Batson is wide-ranging. Each year, in hematology, between 700-800 children with sickle cell disease are treated. Another 150-200 children are treated each year for hemophilia, thrombosis, aplastic anemia, and other blood disorders.
Pediatric Oncology has experienced groundbreaking successes in recent years. On average, there are 78 new cancer cases diagnosed in Mississippi children each year. Batson Hospital for Children treats the majority of them. Within the Cancer Clinic, which was built in 1991 by the Junior League of Jackson, roughly 120 children are on active leukemia therapy at Batson at any given time – a treatment course that typically lasts 2-3 years. Over 500 children that received treatment in the Cancer Clinic at Batson now receive long-term follow-up care from the same hospital, primarily for late effects.
“We are doing some truly innovative things here at Batson, and I am honored to be part of it,” Megason reflects. “However, and it has to be said, it takes all of us to make this happen. People think ‘medicine’ and tend to imagine only individual doctors or nurse practitioners. In reality, for this program to be truly successful, it requires a full team. We often encounter a variety of other challenges not directly related to the disease. This is why the work of our talented social workers is priceless.”
HELPING HANDS IN TIMES OF UPHEAVAL
It is no secret that Mississippi is a poor state. Naturally, being a hospital that serves children and families from all over Mississippi, the issues of the our economically challenged families are seen firsthand at Batson Hospital for Children. Social problems, financial difficulties, mental health issues stemming from poverty, developmental issues, and family crises that coincide with the health crisis of the child – all are potential factors that must be addressed. Serving as allies to families facing such challenges takes a special caliber of person.
LeAnne Howard of Clinton and Theresa Cardenal of Jackson are the two licensed social workers who serve in the department. Howard works exclusively in the oncology division, while Cardenal divides her time between both the hematology and oncology sides of the program. Both of them also contribute to the Pediatric Palliative Care Team. Combined, the duo has logged nearly 35 years of service in their careers at Batson Hospital for Children. In that time, they have witnessed and managed crises that would be hard for most people to fathom.
“Imagine a single mother who has just received a devastating diagnosis for her child,” Cardenal explains. “Her child now needs $1200 worth of medication. She has no insurance. She doesn’t have a vehicle. Meanwhile, her electricity is about to be turned off at home. She doesn’t have anyone to turn to. Situations like this can be psychologically crippling for a person, but even more so when their child is sick. While there is no such thing as a typical day or a typical situation, what I’ve described is not atypical for what we encounter as social workers. And, when you consider that some parents have to bring their children to Batson for treatments two and three times a week, and that some of them have to come from as far away as the Gulf Coast or the Delta, these situations are very stressful.”
Howard concurs. “It’s true. Then, on top of the medical challenges that families face in the life of their child, the developmental obstacles that can sometimes accompany the health crisis can also be very demanding. As medical social workers, while we are limited in what we can do sometimes, we try to better their situation. In some cases, this involves having to start from square one and teach parents a variety of things that are new for them, such as keeping track of medications for their child, alongside everything else they face. It is very challenging work, but it is also very rewarding.”
MOVING FORWARD: THE FUTURE OF HEMATOLOGY & ONCOLOGY
Though they fill different roles within the hematology and oncology team, there is a vital point that Megason, Howard, and Cardenal all agree on about their division at Batson Hospital for Children: the intense demand for the unique care and services offered by the program is at a high watermark. It is a demand predicted to steadily increase. This means added strain on caregivers, equipment, and limitations on physical space. The reason for this isn’t limited to an increased number of patients; it is also attributed to the nature of the diseases themselves and what they require of the doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and social workers.
“The work of this division is different than other areas of pediatric medicine,” Dr. Megason explains. “With healthy children, just as an example, they may break their arm, get the flu, or get their tonsils out, and the hospital may not see them again for a long time. With the children we see in hematology and oncology, quite simply, they are here more often and here for longer. Because of these diseases, and the long-term nature of the treatment cycles, space is at a premium. Ultimately, we are swiftly getting to the place where we need separate and distinct cancer, hematology, and sickle cell clinics, and more personnel to meet the growing demand.”
Though the Hematology and Oncology Division at Batson Hospital for Children is clearly a whirlwind of activity, the strongest impression one gets when talking with Megason, Howard, and Cardenal is how much they love the children and families who so desperately need their help. They don’t see themselves as simply a doctor or social workers with a job to do. They see themselves as allies on the journey of healing.
“We become integral parts of their lives for two and three years, and even upwards of a decade of more, in some cases. We become like members of their family,” Megason concludes.
“Yes,” Howard and Cardenal confirm. “We become members of their family.”