Pulling Back the Curtain: Jessica K. Altman, MD

Jessica K. Altman, MD
Associate professor of medicine in hematology and oncology at Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center in Chicago

In this edition, Jessica K. Altman, MD, explains how working as a dental assistant helped shape her interactions with her patients.

Tell us about your childhood. 

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, just outside of Syracuse. The winters were long, cold, and snowy but, fortunately, I loved skiing.  I am an only child and was, and still am, very close to my parents.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was younger, I initially thought I was going to become a veterinarian because I loved taking care of animals. I didn’t have many pets – just dogs, and one dog at a time. If I’d had more animals living in my house, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about being a veterinarian!

When did you decide you wanted to care for people instead of animals?

I always knew I wanted a career focused on helping, and I was fortunate to be exposed to many different fields a kid: My mom has a career as an immigration lawyer, my dad is a dentist, and they had friends who were doctors.

One of my dad’s very close friends was a urologist, and, when I was in high school, I spent time with him in the office and even observed him in the operating room. What excited me about medicine then, and what still excites me today, is the ability to marry science with helping to make people’s lives better. I wanted a job where I could continue to learn, teach, and care for people. Now, as a leukemia specialist, I am spending time in the clinic, developing trials, and interacting with my laboratory colleagues.

What kind of dentist is your father?

He is a retired endodontist – a dental specialist who performs root canals.

I distinctly remember how as a young child how, when my dad would come home after work, before he was able to relax and spend time with me, he would call his patients who had a procedure that day to check in to see how they were feeling and remind them of what they could do to prevent pain and inflammation. It made me a bit sad at the time that he couldn’t immediately hang out with me.

Later, during the summer after I graduated from high school, I worked as a dental assistant in my dad’s office. I would talk with patients to review their medical history and would then assist the endodontist with the procedure – learning how to anticipate what instrument would be required next.

At first, I worked with my dad’s partners at the practice – not actually with my dad. I’m pretty sure he was afraid that I might have a fit if he spoke sternly to me, or that he might ask me to do something and I would roll my eyes or say, “No way, Dad, I’m not doing that.” Now, as a mom of teenagers, I can understand where he was coming from. It wasn’t until the end of that summer that his partners convinced him to work with me. Seeing him firsthand caring for people was wonderful for me, and it was great for our relationship.

What did you learn from that early experience?

I credit that experience – and seeing how the other dentists and dental assistants in the practice interacted with patients – with teaching me how to take care of people. Much of what I learned there has stuck with me: I remember my dad talking about the importance of local anesthesia when he would do a procedure, and the same thing holds true with a bone marrow biopsy.

Most importantly, those experiences taught me how to listen to patients and work as a member of a team. I also learned how important those follow-up phone calls he made were. I am proud of how great a clinician my dad was and realize how lucky I was to learn from him.

Why did you decide to focus on hematology?

I went to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, which had a strong hematology program that worked hand-in-hand with the organ transplant program. I was inspired by a group of benign hematologists I met there, and I spent elective time working with them to understand coagulation.

So, when I started my residency at the University of Chicago, I thought I was going to specialize in benign hematology. But, as a resident, I had more exposure to malignant than benign hematology. Caring for adults with acute leukemias was very gratifying for me, but I never thought my interest in benign hematology would be replaced. So, I did my fellowship at Northwestern still confident that I was going to be a benign hematologist.

Things changed during my first year of fellowship, and I realized that I truly enjoyed treating patients with malignant hematologic conditions – it wasn’t just a substitute for my love of benign hematology! At that point, I reflected on the mentorship I received as a resident and fellow, particularly that of the malignant hematology physicians at the University of Chicago and Northwestern, and decided I wanted to pursue a career in malignant hematology, working in clinical trials and translational research.

Much of that decision came down to the deep relationships I built when caring for patients with leukemia. Those relationships are vital and offer incredible validation for what I do. I’m privileged to be able to care for patients and get to know them and their family members so well.

“I’m always refining how I speak with patients and how I teach. Continuing to do that is incredibly important to me.”

–Jessica K. Altman, MD

I also like being able to see the malignancy directly. As a malignant hematologist, I can look at someone’s blood or bone marrow biopsy and see the leukemic cells. I can watch them go away and I can see the restoration of normal blood development, which is exciting and gratifying.

My early research interest has been in signal transduction, or the way that leukemia cells communicate, and with the guidance of my lab and clinical mentors, including Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, and Martin Tallman, MD, I was able to build a career focused on early-phase clinical trials in acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

What have been the biggest changes in medicine since you started your career?

I was a fourth-year medical student in 2001 when imatinib was approved for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. That one could take a pill to not only prevent chronic myeloid leukemia from progressing to an acute leukemia, but also make the disease functionally go away, had such a profound impact on our patients’ lives.

The introduction of imatinib and our understanding of chronic myeloid leukemia also affected how we think about treating acute myeloid leukemia and other cancers.

The newly approved therapies and the new treatments on the horizon for AML are very exciting. Our ability to treat some patients with relapsed AML with a pill still surprises me. In just the past couple of years, the recent newly approved agents in AML have been rapidly adopted and have impacted our patients’ lives. And, each advance inspires more questions, which can lead to a better understanding of malignant cell development and, hopefully, further treatment advances for our patients.

Improved supportive care and transplant modalities have improved patients’ survival, as well.

Where did you learn how to build relationships and communicate with patients?

It came from years and years of observation. I also credit it to my relationships with my parents and all the physicians I’ve worked with throughout my career. My husband Eyal, who is not in medicine, has excellent communication skills, and I observe how he interacts with his colleagues and with our children and try to learn from him. We take pieces from all our relationships that build who we are.

Of course, I’m always refining how I speak with patients and how I teach. Continuing to do that is incredibly important to me.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received in your career?

Dr. Platanias told me that one of the most important skills is being able to say, “No.” He advised me to choose what’s most important to work on and not do things that detract from your ability to move forward in whatever area that is – both with projects at work and outside of work.

At the time, I remember not liking what Dr. Platanias had to say to me, because I was the type of person who wanted to be involved in everything. So, I didn’t want to hear that piece of advice, but I needed to hear it. I needed to focus on the handful of projects that are most important and accept that I can’t make everyone happy all the time.

You mentioned earlier that you’re a mom of teenagers. Can you tell us more about your family?

My husband and I have three children: Naomi is 15, Lauren is 13, and Benji is 5. We had our first daughter while I was a resident, our second while I was a fellow, and our son while I was an attending. I was lucky to have my son at a time when I felt I had more day-to-day control over my career.

Eyal and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary this summer. He’s amazing. He has a great career as an executive at a company in the Chicago area and does an incredible amount at home to take care of all of us.

Dr. Altman with her family
Dr. Altman with her husband and their three children: Naomi, Benji, and Lauren (left to right).

What do you enjoy doing with your family when you’re not working? Do you have any hobbies – or time for hobbies?

We’re fortunate to be able to spend time together traveling as a family; my husband travels for work and the rest of us benefit from those frequent flyer miles!

We like to explore new places together. Years ago, before our youngest was born, we drove from Chicago to the Black Hills and Badlands in South Dakota. It was incredible, and even though I don’t like sitting in cars for a long time, it was worth it. Two years ago, we went to the Oregon Coast, which was wonderful – and an area of the country that I had never visited.

My husband was born in Israel and grew up in South Africa, so we’ve had great family trips to both places.

And to stay sane, I like to exercise. Otherwise, I have too much energy that isn’t necessarily productive. So, I get on the elliptical at home and watch mindless television to unwind.