Serving the Next Generation of Hematologists: Interview with Reed E. Drews, MD

Reed E. Drews, MD
Dr. Drews is associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; director of the Hematology/Oncology Training Program and assistant director of Education at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Reed E. Drews, MD, recipient of the 2018 Mentor Award in education, explains how he found his home at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, Boston and the special pride he feels in helping trainees find their calling.

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My father was a chemical engineer at the Dupont plant near where I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, so I always was inclined toward science. My initial career plan was to follow in his footsteps: I started off as a chemistry major at Yale University and, after I graduated, I headed to Harvard University to get my PhD in chemistry.

After a year in the program, though, I realized I was attracted to the biologic, bio-organic aspects of what I was doing as a chemistry major. For me, that meant exploring that interest and applying to medical schools.

I applied to several places and was debating between pursuing a PhD or an MD with a research interest. I was thrilled to be accepted to the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, which required medical students to complete a research thesis. This was a perfect fit for me – and I was happy to stay in Boston. So, a few years later, I received my MD, and I’ve been happy ever since.

Who or what inspired you to specialize in hematology?

It happened when I was a second-year medical student. In one of our semester-long courses, we drew our own blood to look at under the microscope. That was my first exposure to hematology, and it instantly attracted me.

That attraction only grew stronger through my four years of medical school. I was fortunate to do a hematology elective at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with H. Frank Bunn, MD, who was a luminary in the field of hematology.

Hematology sparked my interest from the beginning, but I wasn’t certain about medical oncology. That changed during the first year of my internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where hematology and medical oncology were combined in one program. I learned to love medical oncology and completed my training there.

Who were the mentors that helped you make that decision?

I am fortunate to have been taught by and to have worked with several world-renowned hematologists early in my career. Obviously, there was Dr. Bunn at Brigham and Women’s.

As a resident, I also clearly remember sitting across the microscope from William Moloney, MD, and being drawn to the morphology of blood cells as they “grow up” in the marrow.

As a fourth-year medical student, I met Steven Weinberger, MD, who was a pulmonologist and director of the Core Medicine II sub-internship/clerkship I was in. He went on to serve in several positions at Beth Israel, and we have become close friends.

Stephen Robinson, MD, who was the chief of hematology here, also had a great influence on my career.

What qualities do you think make someone a good mentor?

In 1997, I was asked to take over for Dr. Robinson as the director of the hematology/oncology fellowship program after he became ill. That same year, Mark Peppercorn, MD, head of the Core Medicine I clerkship for third-year Harvard medical students, was stepping down from that role after 20 years. So, starting in 1997, I spent about 11 years as the course director for the Core Medicine I clerkship and still hold the role of fellowship program director.

I think a successful mentor is someone who  inspires enthusiasm for medicine. As director of a clerkship and a fellowship program – and as a hematologist who loves anemias and coagulation pathways and everything else blood-related – I believe my responsibility is to pass along my passion for hematology to trainees at all levels – medical students, residents, and fellows.

Mentors exist to bring out the best in trainees and mentees. As a fellowship program director, my mission has been to meet and get to know my fellows individually and then make sure that they have a fertile environment in which to grow. All of them are talented, smart individuals with many pathways open to them. I’m there to ensure that they are able to accomplish as much as they can within our programs.

We can’t force anyone down a particular career pathway – even though we might have our own ideas of where they might thrive. We can only help them make the decision that’s in their hearts and minds. Once a fellow has decided which pathway is right for him or her – laboratory research, clinical investigation, community practice, or translational science – then it behooves our program to give them as much opportunity as possible to progress along that pathway.

What was the best career advice you’ve received?

In the second year of my three-year residency, I was asked to be the chief resident, which was a job typically given to someone between the first and second year of fellowship. So, at the same time as I was considering that new role, I was deciding where I wanted to do my training. I knew I wanted to continue in Boston because my life with my wife, who was a year behind me in training, was entrenched here. That meant I had to wrestle with the question, “Should I continue at Beth Israel or go across the street to Brigham and Women’s? Should I go to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute or go across town to Tufts Medical Center?”

I was at this crossroads and I asked Eugene Braunwald, MD, who was chief of medicine at Beth Israel when I was a house officer, for his advice. He told me that if I liked it at Beth Israel, I should stay. What was interesting about that was Dr. Braunwald also was the chief of medicine at Brigham and Women’s; he held both roles and he was basically advising me to stay where I was happy. So, Beth Israel it was. It helped that Beth Israel had both hematology and oncology fellowships – and I was biased toward doing both hematology and medical oncology training to begin with.

What career accomplishment are you most proud of?

Quite frankly, my greatest accomplishment is what I am being recognized for with this award: influencing more than 600 medical students during my 11 years as the course director for Core Medicine I clerkship and playing a role in the career development of more than 120 fellows over my 20-plus years as fellowship program director. I take tremendous pride in that, but I also am humbled by the recognition. I would say that my receipt of this award is a testimony to my fellows who put together the nomination.

I also am proud of my work with the ASH Committee on Training from 2010 to 2016, as chair of the committee of the ASH HONORS Award and the Research Training Award Fellowship Program. (I’m not sure if my service for ASH influenced the Award Committee’s decision, but what can I say? I loved my time there.)

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

By far, the part I look forward to the most is being in clinic with patients and trainees. As part of the Core Medicine Clerkship here, I’m often assigned a medical student to join me in clinic for four consecutive weeks. I take that role very seriously; I want to learn why that medical student is doing what he or she is doing and what I can do to inspire him or her – particularly if that person is pursuing hematology.

I see patients on my own, too, and love the challenge of thinking through a difficult case. In medical oncology, a biopsy can tell you what type of cancer you’re dealing with; in hematology, there isn’t always a clear answer. I like to inspire trainees to practice thinking through problems, as well.

On the other hand, the administrative aspects of my roles aren’t too exciting. Making sure all the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed is all part of the job, though.

What do you in your off hours – if you have any?

Gardening keeps me grounded (pardon the pun), which is something else that I probably inherited from my father.

I enjoy playing cello. At least two or three times a month, I get together with friends to play; we make a night out of it, playing string quartets together and then retiring to the dining room to share wine, food, and stories. Dr. Weinberger and I also share a musical connection. He plays piano, so early in our friendship, we started getting together to play sonatas and piano trios.

I’m still an amateur cellist, but I’m happy to say that I’m good enough that I can play with professionals. I love watching the professionals at work, though, so I’m a regular attendee at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Celebrity Series. Music is a passion of mine. I suppose, if I had not gone into science or medicine, I would have pursued a career in music. But, obviously my heart and mind were driving me in a more scientific direction.