Pulling Back the Curtain: Wendy Stock, MD

Professor of medicine in hematology/oncology and director of the Leukemia Program at University of Chicago

What was your first job?

My first job was working at a Dairy Queen. I worked there the summer before I turned 16 and, actually, for four summers after that. My classmate’s father owned one of the old-fashioned Dairy Queens with a walk-up window and no air conditioner. I got paid $1.00 an hour, which was cheap even back then!

I worked really hard those summers, but it was a wonderful job, and I have so many fond memories.  My big challenge every night was to try to ride my bike with no hands the mile and a half to and from the Dairy Queen – and, very often, I did it, zipping back home without ever touching the handlebars.

I can still make perfect little curlicues on the tips of ice cream cones and delicious banana splits, but, to this day, I can’t eat a banana.

Funnily enough, years later, when I was an intern and on my feet for practically 36 hours, my legs used to ache so badly at night. I thought, I have had this feeling before; I remember this. Then suddenly, it hit me: It was the same ache from standing in that tiny, cramped Dairy Queen booth for eight to 10 hours at a time.

It was a great learning experience, too. First, I learned that I really wanted a college education because I didn’t want to work in the Dairy Queen for the rest of my life! The best part of the job, though, was the camaraderie and laughs working through those many hot, difficult hours. I have had my share of clockwatching jobs, but they did all have some entertaining aspect to them. That’s where I learned how much I loved working with other people.

Did you always know you wanted to go into medicine?

No, definitely not. Honestly, I never even liked going to the doctor; I would cry every time.

The one thing I knew for certain was that I did not want a repetitive, boring job. My biggest hope for my career was to be challenged and to do something meaningful; I have definitely fulfilled those criteria.

Growing up, I wanted to be a biologist. I had this vision of myself as Jacques Cousteau or Jane Goodall – a naturalist or a photojournalist. My dream job was being a photojournalist for National Geographic. I had to eventually rule out photojournalist, though, when I learned that – thanks to my time in the marine biology lab at University of California during graduate school – I get very seasick.

It wasn’t until after graduate school with a degree in Zoology that I even started thinking about medical school – largely based on a suggestion from my graduate advisor. My younger brother, who was in medical school at the time, also seemed to be having a great time.

From there, my interests started evolving – from animal behavior to the cellular biology and molecular biology and tumor progression. There were certain aspects of my work during graduate school that I truly loved, but, when I was working on my thesis project, I did not enjoy the solitary nature of that work. In the end, I wanted to be part of a bigger process. So, between my desire to work in a more collaborative environment and my changing interests, I decided to change career paths.

Are there any other people who have had a big impact on your career path?

Many, many people have helped me tremendously in terms of shaping my career. Once I became a fellow in hematology/oncology at the University of Chicago, my clinical mentor Richard A. Larson, MD, taught me so much. He’s very rigorous and can be very tough and exacting, but what he taught me about treating people with leukemia is invaluable. My laboratory mentor during fellowship, Carol Westbrook, MD, PhD, is a very bright scientist interested in the basic questions about leukemia and the early molecular biology of leukemia. That’s where I began my work in the clinical translational aspects of leukemia research.

Everyone I work with is very kind and helpful to me, and I’m incredibly grateful for their help and guidance. I’ve met many people from across the country who, again, are truly kindred spirits. The cooperative setting has been great, and I’m very lucky to count them as sounding boards, collaborators, and friends.

What has your work life taught you?

What you realize in medicine is you can’t do it alone – you need a team. I have been blessed to work with a great team and that extends to my nursing colleagues, data managers, and our pharmacists. It makes going to work every day such a great experience.

Also, I’ve learned that, on some level, we’re all the same. As I’ve progressed in my career, I have been tremendously lucky to have opportunities to go abroad to present my work or participate in clinical research training and to meet people from all over the world. What I’ve learned is that, no matter where we are from, we are all trying to solve the same problems – how to make our patients’ lives better and how to deal with the sadness when we can’t.

At the Highlights of ASH meeting in Singapore a few years ago, I was sitting at a table with some female Muslim physicians from Malaysia. Although we come from different parts of the world, we were kindred spirits.

In a given day, what is your rose and what is your thorn?

I have many “best” parts of my day. The “rose” is the patient success stories: when I can deliver good news, or when patients five to 10 years out come in to say hello, or when I get a letter from a patient who is thriving. That’s incredible. I’m still involved in clinical research and laboratory translational research, so getting to collaborate with the researchers in my lab is still fun and energizing for me. I consider myself lucky to be able to witness their advances.

The difficult part is having to convey bad news, but it’s not a “thorn,” it’s really just sad.

The true irritation is the electronic medical record system, which has truly changed my life, but not for the better. I spend way too much time struggling with the records, the documentation, and the true cumbersomeness of the system. Then, of course, there are the countless, never-ending email chains to attend to – many of which we could all live without.

Given your unconventional route to medicine, is there any advice you would offer to younger people just getting started in their careers?

It’s trite to say, but the most important thing is to find your passion and to pursue it. For me, I just never felt quite right until that first day in medical school. Something clicked. At the same time, though, be logical about that passion – but don’t put it completely aside. Keep working at something that you love, and try to remain passionate about it. That’s not so easy to do in our field, where we must deal with sad outcomes quite frequently, but it’s essential.

Also, stay open to new ideas and new opportunities. Sometimes, incredible things come up that completely change the way you think about things, just through purely serendipitous coincidences.

Do all these things, but also try to make time for yourself, if you can.

Do you struggle with making time for yourself?

I do, like all of us. Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive husband. He is not involved in medicine, which is probably a good thing! I play the violin in a small community orchestra here in Chicago; we’re not very good, but we have a lot of fun and an amazing conductor. My husband and I also play in a small klezmer band in our synagogue – again, not very good, but an incredibly fun time!

I love to read, and I joined a longstanding book group. I love to cook; it takes my mind off of things, it makes me happy, and it makes other people happy, too.

In general, I love being with my friends and family, whether it’s going to a museum or to the symphony. That’s why I love living in Chicago; there are a gazillion things to do on any given day.

We have two children. Our son just finished graduate school and is an architect (like my husband), and our daughter will be starting medical school this year (which is truly exciting for me). Both of them seem happy, which thrills me, because you never stop fretting about your kids.

My daughter will be taking her first-year classes at the University of Chicago, actually in the building right next to my office building, so hopefully I can bump into her from time to time. She has promised that she might eat lunch with me once a month.

Did you and your husband ever think your kids would follow in your footsteps?

I never thought they would end up in the paths they have taken – so maybe they follow in my footsteps in that regard, too! The whole process of being a parent and learning what you can and can’t control has been very fascinating to me. What you realize is they are who they are; you can try to teach them compassion, honor, respect, and commitment, but their personalities are their personalities.

So, no, it wasn’t expected, but it’s a wonderful surprise. I’m sure there were many days when I came home from a long day of work and did not seem too happy with my job, but I hope what they saw was the fact that I am never bored, I am always challenged, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had in my career.

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