Packard Children’s cancer patient receives honorary degree from her caregivers

Minal Patel, a 26-year-old Packard Children’s patient, has always wanted to become a physician. When her cancer relapsed, her doctors and nurses planned a special way to recognize her goal.

- By Erin Digitale

Minal Patel (center) was presented with an honorary medical diploma at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford after her cancer relapsed, derailing her plans to study medicine. Her care team includes (from left) nurse practitioner Nichole Mosher, pediatric oncologist Emily Johnston,  pediatric oncologist Sheri Spunt and nurse practitioner Pam Simon. 
Erin Digitale

Three years ago, soon after Minal Patel started receiving treatment for an aggressive form of cancer, she informed her favorite oncologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford that she hoped to become an academic physician herself.

“I had no doubt you would do it,” the physician, Emily Johnston, MD, told Patel recently. “You already had more scientific publications than I did.”

Johnston, an instructor in pediatric hematology-oncology, was speaking at a ceremony held Oct. 3 in the Packard Children’s auditorium to confer an honorary medical degree on 26-year-old Patel. Earlier this year, Patel’s cancer relapsed; her prognosis is poor. The surprise ceremony was a way for her caregivers to acknowledge that, although Patel cannot pursue her dream of becoming a physician, she has contributed to medicine by sharing her insights into what it’s like to be a young adult with cancer. Patel’s mother, Priti Patel, and about 30 hospital staff members attended the celebration.

When Patel was diagnosed in 2014 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare, soft-tissue tumor, she was referred to Packard Children’s for treatment. The tumor usually strikes kids and teenagers, so although Patel was then 23, she needed pediatric care. Rhabdomyosarcoma specialist Sheri Spunt, MD, professor of pediatrics in hematology and oncology, began working with Patel and Johnston, then a pediatric oncology fellow, to plan an intensive year of chemotherapy.

Patel told her physicians how her diagnosis had interrupted her path to medical school. She had earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of California-San Diego, where she worked as a research associate and co-authored the scientific papers that Johnston mentioned. She also was studying for her Medical College Admissions Test. She was eager to finish chemotherapy and return to her academic ambitions.

Beyond the doctor-patient relationship

During her treatment, Patel became close to her caregivers, especially Johnston. “She’s one of those rare physicians who keeps a physician-patient relationship and adds a friendship aspect to it,” Patel said. The two discussed cancer, but also talked about many elements of their daily lives. Their relationship increased Patel’s confidence that she was being treated as a person, not just a patient, and boosted her ability to have a positive outlook about her situation.

When Patel was diagnosed, Johnston was only two months into her pediatric oncology fellowship. Their close doctor-patient connection has meant a lot to her, too.

“Minal is just so fun and feisty; I always come out of her [hospital] room with a smile on my face,” Johnston said. The two have bonded over their shared love of soccer. Their medical discussions include a lot of give and take; Patel once told Johnston she wished she’d been warned that her hair would always be different after chemotherapy, for example. “I’m learning how to be a pediatric oncologist,” Johnston said. “I really appreciate that she is thoughtful and reflects on what’s going on.”

It’s the acts of kindness that remind me of the goodness of the present and people.

When Patel finished her planned year of treatment in August 2015, Johnston and Spunt helped celebrate. They thought she was headed for a stellar medical career. “She would be a phenomenal doctor — she’s so passionate, compassionate and intelligent,” Johnston said.

But early this year, the cancer relapsed. Patel resumed chemotherapy, and she and Johnston planned how she could get the most out of her remaining time. Fulfilling a soccer-fan dream, Patel attended a Real Madrid game in Spain earlier this year.

But there was another goal Patel worried she wouldn’t be able to reach.

“Minal is upset because she doesn’t think she will have the impact she wanted to have,” Johnston said. Recalling that Patel had once expressed a wish to receive an honorary medical degree, Johnston began working with nurse practitioner Pam Simon, program manager of the Stanford Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program, to plan a ceremony. As she presented the diploma (inscribed to Minal Patel, MD) Johnston described how much her patient had taught her, and how broadly she’d affected the dozens of people in the room, and many others who had also wanted to attend.

There were a few tears during the ceremony, but much more laughter.

“Now that I’m a doctor, do I get a job offer?” Patel asked the audience, honorary diploma in hand. “I don’t need a fellowship; I already went through it,” she added, to chuckles from the crowd.

Soon everyone was offering Patel congratulatory hugs, balloons and flowers. They were eating cupcakes and snapping photos of the honoree in her academic gown. Patel kept flashing her enormous grin.

The next day, she reflected on what the ceremony meant for her. “It’s the acts of kindness that remind me of the goodness of the present and people,” she said. “Even in this very dark phase of cancer, there’s still brightness to it.”

About Stanford Medicine

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