Wisconsin native Joseph Torkildson, MD, went off to the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, thinking he was going to become a high school band director—he loved playing trumpet—or a doctor. His first semester as a music education major didn’t go well. The school’s focus was on performance and that wasn’t his strong suit.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out I wasn’t cut out for it,” he said. The only class he aced was calculus. Doctoring it would be.
Before going off to the Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr. Torkildson performed an economic analysis on the cost of a medical school education. He could incur years of debt that would have to be paid off, or he could join the Navy and pay for his education with service.
“I figured I’d be in the Navy for seven years,” he said, “and come out debt free. But I wouldn’t be able to pay off the debts in seven years.”
He joined the Navy and went to med school on their dime. It was the beginning of 22 years of service to his country.
A medical school rotation at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital brought him to Oakland. He hoped to follow with a pediatric residency at a civilian hospital but the head of pediatrics at Oak Knoll denied his request. “He thought I’d be a good intern. I applied for a civilian assignment, but he said no.”
In a few years, he’d be grateful to that same doctor for saving his Navy career.
Meanwhile, Dr. Torkildson parked his duffel bags at Oak Knoll for a three-year residency. He then stayed on for two more years as an attending pediatrician.
The residency and attending assignment at Oak Knoll proved fortuitous. He met his future wife, Christy, a navy nurse, while working there. And he developed a working relationship with Children’s Hospital Oakland. He found himself caring for Oak Knoll’s hematology kids, and arranged for them to get advanced treatments at Children’s.
Personal medical crisis
Bolstered by that experience, Dr. Torkildson applied for and was accepted at a Hem/Onc fellowship program at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
Before he could begin his fellowship, he had his own medical crisis: He become a type 1 diabetic. This was devastating, because Navy rules wouldn’t allow him to stay on active duty as a diabetic. If he were discharged, they also wouldn’t honor paying for his fellowship.
In stepped his wife, Lieutenant Commander Christy Torkildson, RN.
“She’s not one to accept things the way they were,” he acknowledged.
Christy wrote many letters, including one to the Navy’s surgeon general. The surgeon general shared it with his deputy. The deputy, it turns out, was the former head of pediatrics at Oak Knoll, the one that had ordered Dr. Torkildson to do his residency there. (That Oakland connection coming through again!) He recommended to the surgeon general that Dr. Torkildson remain on active duty. When the evaluation board recommended he be discharged, as per regulations, the Navy’s surgeon general reversed the decision. Two weeks later, Dr. Torkildson left for Childrens Hospital Los Angeles for his Hem/Onc fellowship.
Dr. Torkildson served for 10 years as a pediatric oncologist at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. He then took a management job with the Department of Defense in San Antonio, Texas, getting an MBA degree in the process. He was thinking of a career in executive medicine.
But Oakland again came knocking on the door—only it was Christy’s door they knocked on first. When Barbara Beach, MD, and Kathy Hull, PsyD, were establishing George Mark Children’s House, they called Christy and asked her if she would like to manage the clinical operations.
“I told her she’d been following me around for 22 years; if she really wanted to do this, I would follow her this time.”
Christy took the job and moved. A few months later, Dr. Torkildson, newly retired from the Navy, moved himself and their four daughters.
Back to Children’s
It wasn’t long before Dr. Beach called again and said Children’s was looking for a hematologist/oncologist. Dr. Torkildson accepted the position, which soon morphed into the director of Neuro-Oncology when the previous director left. It was a small program, but Dr. Torkildson, with his newly minted MBA degree, has been growing it, from about eight patients a year, to 27 patients in 2006 and 33 patients in 2007.
Under Dr. Torkildson’s leadership, the Neuro-Oncology program is establishing state-of-the-art protocols for brain and spinal cord tumors.
“The biggest challenge in neuro-oncology, and the area I’m most fascinated with, is the fact that the younger the child, the more devastating the therapy can be to the eventual neurologic and cognitive outcomes.” Radiation, Dr. Torkildson explained, “always comes with a cost.”
To minimize that cost, Children’s has joined the Head Start Consortium, a research group led by Jonathan Finlay, MB, ChB, director, Neural Tumors Program, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. The consortium has established a series of protocols to give very aggressive chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplants in hopes of eliminating the need for radiation. Children’s has treated some patients in these protocols and seen good results.
Dr. Torkildson is looking toward the day when he can cure a sizable number of his patients without radiation. Until then, he is pursuing funding to support a regional neuropsychology diagnosis and treatment center to help children injured by cancer diagnoses and treatment to reach their maximum academic and social potential.
“We have made tremendous strides over the past 40 years in improving the survival of children with cancer,” he said. “ But we know that there is a cost to many of the survivors, not just of brain tumors but other cancers as well, in terms of academic success, employability, and quality of life. My goal is to do whatever I can to make sure that not only do they survive, but that at the end of the day they’re glad they did.”