Dr. Jim Olson: “Changing the Way We Practice Medicine”
While in Seattle Ricardo and I had the pleasure of meeting with famed cancer research scientist and pediatric oncologist Dr. Jim Olson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Alongside his relatively small research team, Olson has made major advancements in the field of cancer prevention as well as improvements in the therapeutic process for cancer patients. Recently the team has begun human trials on a groundbreaking detection technique called “Tumor Paint”, in which a chemical from scorpion venom has been reengineered and implemented as a means of making cancerous cells light up and glow, thus increasing the efficiency and ease with which surgeons can adequately remove tumors without harming excess tissue. The guy’s job literally consists of playing with venomous scorpions to daily save and improve the lives of children fighting cancer.
We asked Dr. Olson a few questions about his personal history, his ideas on team-building, the emotional aspect of becoming intimate with so many patients and their families, what it’s like working with children, and if he had any advice for us. He was very receptive and open to our questions and by far one of the most comfortable interviewees I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
One aspect of Dr. Olson’s unique mentality that really stood out to me was his complete fusion of work and personal life. Asked to describe the process in which he meets and interacts with patients and their families, Olson explained that, perhaps unlike some in his field, he doesn’t put up emotional barriers. That trying to block out emotions from work just inevitably creates barriers in your personal life as well, and ultimately, is isolating.
“When I meet a new cancer patient and their family, I become part of their family,” he said. “I allow myself to love every kid I work with…even though I lose almost half my kids to cancer, I let myself love them as if they’re my own child.”
After our interview he took us to meet his full team and asked us to say a few words about our project and what they could learn from us! It was an enlightening, empowering experience. In the end, we concluded that making major advances in the field of medicine with a minuscule budget relative to the billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies is similar to documenting stories on an intercontinental cycling trip in a few key ways. We’re both striking off into uncharted territory with no real model or guideline to follow, and to have the willpower and determination to make it, we both need only think of whom we’re working for. For Dr. Olson and his team—the patients and their families. For us—our audience around the world.
(Video and photos by Ricardo Palomares)