Elliott P. Vichinsky, MD’s voice still carries the sound of Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was raised in a four-story apartment building belonging to his grandfather. He fondly remembers the 16 apartments in the building, all filled with members of the tight-knit Vichinsky clan.
His father was one of five brothers who worked together in the shipping business. His father was also a poet, sculptor and inventor, and Dr. Vichinsky absorbed his intensity, work ethic and passion for creativity. His mother often helped those in need, teaching Dr. Vichinsky never to ignore the suffering of others.
Soon his family of five moved to East Meadow, where, even in kindergarten, Dr. Vichinsky impressed his teachers. “He is alert and eager to learn,” read a line on his report card. “His work is interesting and original in its content.”
Today, as medical director of the Hematology/Oncology program and Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, Dr. Vichinsky continues doing impressive work as a researcher and physician.
He sees the healing arts as a higher calling.
“The gift of being a physician is an enormous responsibility,” Dr. Vichinsky told fellow physicians when honored in 2005 with Children’s Hospital’s 49th Bronze Bambino award. “I’ve always seen it as an extreme honor, a spiritual experience.”
He backs his words with action.
Dr. Vichinsky is an expert on genetic blood disorders, primarily thalassemia, sickle cell disease and hemophilia. He has authored and co-authored more than 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals and served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. He’s been principal investigator on more than 40 major research projects and has given countless presentations around the world about blood disorders.
He diagnoses and treats children with cancer and tumors, helped create the Blood and Marrow Transplant program at Children’s and led the first multicenter studies showing there could be positive outcomes for children with sickle cell anemia.
“I was a product of the ‘60s and I really believed in social justice and change, that society needed to do more, to give back,” said Dr. V, as he’s widely known at Children’s, during an interview in his small, cluttered, book-lined office. “I really believe it’s the moral responsibility of members of society to help those in need, to never ignore those less fortunate than yourself. Medicine to me was that opportunity to help others. It was a way to make a difference in the world.”
He attended State University of New York Downstate’s medical school in Brooklyn and, early on, had an interest in internal medicine. But then he met Maria Falter, MD, a pediatric hematologist and professor at his medical school.
“Dr. Falter had such a rapport with the children with fatal diseases,” said Dr. V. “She got down and played with them. She changed my life.”
He immediately switched to pediatric hematology and accepted Dr. Falter’s invitation to help with her research on sickle cell disease. They became close friends.
“(Dr. Vichinsky) was so compassionate; he didn’t go after the material things a medical career could offer,” said Dr. Falter. “He was very bright; and he was interested in helping others.”
After medical school, Dr. Vichinsky and his wife, Diane, moved to Seattle. He completed his residency at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center, staying on to do a fellowship in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and later became a senior research fellow at the University of Washington.
In 1979, Dr. V joined Children’s and helped build it into a Hematology Oncology powerhouse.
“Children’s offered me the opportunity to serve a diverse community that was really a microcosm of the world,” said Dr. V. “Working here enabled me to make a difference in a community, to integrate state-of-the-art research and academic inquiry into a complicated community that had social and medical needs.”
As Dr. V took on new roles, he went from mentored to mentoring. He recruited Mark Walters, MD, another Seattle alum, who now heads up the Blood and Marrow Transplant program. Dr. Walters said Dr. Vichinsky taught him how to be a mentor.
“One way to assure that the patients you serve get the care they need is to teach someone else how to do it, or teach people how to do studies that will discover new treatments,” said Dr. Walters. “Elliott’s kind of a model mentor: he’s done all those things. Over the years he’s trained a number of really productive hematologists.”
Dr. Vichinsky adds a twist. “Mentoring is a two-way street,” he said. “There are a lot of people here who are a lot smarter than I am. I’ve learned a lot from the junior people; it’s enabled me to stay enriched, to learn and continue to grow.”
Dr. V also praises what he’s learned from the many non-MD clinicians he’s worked with over the years. In 1973, he worked with a nurse practitioner named Judy at a Papago/Pima Indian reservation in Arizona. Judy asked Dr. V to give the shots because many older Indians didn’t want a woman giving them injections.
“They can do most of what you (the physician) can do, and most of the time they can do it better,” said Dr. V. “I didn’t know how to give shots; she had to instruct me.” They bounced around her 100,000-acre territory in a beat-up jeep, her laughter in his ear.
But patients have been his best teachers. “I’ve learned that people can adapt to serious illness and handicaps and still maintain joy in life,” said Dr. Vichinsky. “The important thing about a Hem/Onc doctor is to maintain quality of life.”
To help maintain his own quality of life, Dr. V began running marathons 18 years ago. But a year ago, while running his slowest marathon, he had the most fun.
His son and a daughter, and his patients, he said, have taught him that there are more important things than one’s personal goals. Quietly he said, “My family is the most important thing.”