Jeffrey Toretsky, MD: Take chances. Get messy! Make mistakes?

Professor, Departments of Oncology and Pediatrics
Division Chief, Pediatric Adolescent and Young Adult Hematology/Oncology

“It is not enough just to provide care. You have to think about how we can care for the next generation.”

At Georgetown University since 2002


Being a physician-scientist is not a nine-to-five job.

If you go into medicine thinking you are going to come in at a certain time, do really cool things, and then leave at a certain time, this is not the job for you. People often ask how I divide my time between being a physician and a scientist. What is really fantastic about my job is that I get to do so many different things. It just takes more time to do it all. I teach and mentor very bright students from high school through graduate school. I have even found a niche in mentoring junior faculty.

Learning from the best.

The best mentor is somebody who can push you to do something you did not think you could do. They help you to get there, but you need to get there yourself. So I try to be that type of mentor. I do not do well with people who are not super motivated. I need people around me who are ambitious and, in the words of Ms. Frizzle from Magic School Bus, willing to “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” I am okay with students doing that if they are willing to work really hard to do it. I do not tolerate laziness, apathy, or negative cynicism. I do not tolerate those qualities well in people, and those people would likely not do well under my leadership.

“I like to think that I can motivate people by showing them and by giving them a sense of what they could possibly grow into. “

Dealing with death.

A patient comes in with a diagnosis, and we give them what we think is the best treatment at the time. If the treatment does not work, then they go on to have the progressive disease. I do not look at that as loss or failure, but I look at it as my role shifting. The goal is to always provide the best care, with a goal of relieving pain and suffering; but there is a slight paradigm shift when patient survival is no longer going to be achievable with current medications. I do not mean euthanasia actively, I mean providing care in a way that allows a patient and their family to keep their humanity. We want to help the patient accomplish whatever they want in the time they have left, while keeping them pain-free and comfortable as much as possible. And that is hardly trivial. It involves being an expert in managing a series of medications, and being able to deal with any cultural issues for that family. If I can provide that to a family, then I have succeeded as a professional. When my patients die, the fact that I am in the laboratory thinking about what is going to happen to the next generation provides the safety net of mental hope that I need. It is both satisfying and allows me to keep practicing medicine with patients who have very challenging diseases to treat.