Pulling Back the Curtain: Donna DiMichele, MD

Donna DiMichele, MD
Deputy director of the Division of Blood Diseases and Resources at the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

In this edition, Donna DiMichele, MD, reveals the careers she imagined herself in had she not pursued medicine, and how her first summer jobs established a lifelong work ethic.

In Sound Bites, hear more from our interview with Dr. DiMichele, including her reflections on how hematology has changed during her career.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Montreal, Canada. My brother, sister, and I were city kids – the neighborhood streets and city parks were our playgrounds. We rode our bikes and roller-skated everywhere in the summer, and in the winter, we played in the snow, shoveled it, and never missed school because of it. And we grew up on hockey, of course! I had a great childhood.

I was raised in an extended-family setting that included my maternal grandparents, both of whom came from large families. Our home felt like Grand Central Station, a constant hub of activity with relatives and friends coming and going all the time.

My heritage is Italian through and through, so you can imagine that everything was centered in the kitchen and on food – eating was a big part of everyday life. Growing up in a bilingual society and in an Italian household meant that I was immersed in different languages and cultures. At one point, I even thought about formally studying languages and becoming an interpreter.

What was your first job?

My working-class relatives gave me my earliest job opportunities. I started working when I was 16 years old and held summer jobs until I stopped having summer breaks. First, I worked on the production line in a clothing factory, then I sold shoes in a department store, where I eventually was promoted to the payroll office.

Working these jobs with my family taught me a strong work ethic early in life and that there is no shame in the work you do – only the work you don’t do to the best of your ability. I carried these lessons with me into my medical career.

“Early in life [I learned] that there is no shame in the work you do – only the work you don’t do to the best of your ability.”

What was your most exciting job?

There are two that come to mind: First, right after I entered medical school at McGill University, I worked with Balfour Mount, MD, a pioneer in the North American palliative care and hospice movements. The time I spent with him was formative, and I was fortunate to learn profound lessons in compassionate care early in my medical training.

I organized a program for medical students from McGill University and the University of Montreal to work in the drug-testing operations at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. We were only in our first year, so we were just collecting urine samples, but we got to be behind the scenes with famous athletes, like record-setting gymnast Olga Korbut!

Was there any other career you could see yourself in besides medicine?

My childhood dreams certainly did not include becoming a physician. Medicine was a choice I made in college that surprised the heck out of my family and – to some extent – me. The decision “germinated” from an evolving interest in human biology.

As late as my senior year in high school, I had my sights set on two careers: journalism or veterinary medicine. I was even actively exploring universities specializing in either one.

I was interested in veterinary medicine because I loved animals and had all sorts of pets growing up. I was fascinated by the veterinarians who knew so much about a variety of animals and was intrigued by the challenge. With journalism, I loved writing. I also read newspapers as an adolescent, and digging up a story was appealing to me – and probably explains my love of the investigative aspect of medicine.

Did anyone in your family work in the medical field – and, if so, did that affect your eventual decision to pursue medicine?

No one in my family was in the medical profession. The only career that was common in my family was teaching, and – even though I enjoyed school – I never envisioned becoming a school teacher. Somehow that influence persisted because I chose pediatrics as a specialty and have always loved my role as an educator in medicine.

If there was one person who influenced my decision, it would have been my own pediatrician. I grew up at a time when doctors made house calls and practiced out of their own homes. He was funny, kind, and always made me feel better. I was never afraid of going to the doctor!

Later in your medical career, were there any mentors who helped shape your path?

When you decide on a career, and certainly a career in medicine, there is no one more influential than a good teacher and a good student. Fortunately, I have interacted with plenty of both through the years. But, undoubtedly, the person who holds the highest place of honor is my mentor from the University of Colorado, William Hathaway, MD, who had a profound influence on my career in hematology and hemophilia, and on my own role as a mentor.
Dr. Hathaway was an exceptional mentor. He had a formidable fount of knowledge and was a pioneer in pediatric hemostasis investigation.

At the same time, he was self-effacing and avoided the limelight, preferring to let his fellows travel around the country and the world to present the research he closely mentored.

There is a long list of trainees whom he inspired to pursue careers in hemostasis. Before he retired, he would hold a “family reunion” for alumni every spring in Aspen. His current and former fellows would meet to share their scientific research in the morning and then ski together in the afternoon. It was a legendary three days that strengthened our personal and professional relationships and cemented his legacy. He’s now in his late 80s, and I still love speaking to him.

What advice would you give to early-career hematologists?

I’ve received some great advice from Dr. Hathaway and other mentors in my career, but the best piece of advice to share is from a good friend who repeatedly tells me, “When you do your best, angels couldn’t do better.” I am really driven and can be my own worst critic, so those words reassure me.

I think it’s important for individuals who are early in their demanding careers to realize they can only do their best, and that their best will only get better through hard work. But there are no shortcuts, and the worst you can do professionally is to fool yourself into thinking that you’re doing your best when you aren’t.

What accomplishment would you say you are most proud of in your career?

I don’t think I can settle on one accomplishment. I am most proud of my trainees. During my 15 years at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, I had the opportunity to work with more than 100 fellows. It is so rewarding to watch them navigate their own careers and grow in their chosen fields.

I also am proud and thankful to have had the opportunity to build the Regional Comprehensive Hemophilia Diagnostic and Treatment Center at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, continuing the legacy of its prior director and a pioneer in hemophilia care, Margaret Hilgartner, MD.

Finally, I am proud of the work that I am now doing at the National Institutes of Health to promote basic and clinical research in hemophilia and rare blood disorders, and – most importantly – to help lead the Blood Division’s efforts in workforce development.

In a typical day, what is the best part of your day and what is the worst?

That’s an easy question to answer: The best part of my day is listening to and reading about cutting-edge blood science, brainstorming about how to stimulate and grow the field, and speaking with our dedicated trainees and investigators. The worst part of my day, undoubtedly, is the time spent working on someone else’s administrative priorities.

What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

People might be surprised to hear that I am an introvert.

What do you like to do in your off hours when you’re not working?

I love the theater; it’s a lifelong passion that was fueled by my time in New York City. I am fortunate to be in Washington, DC, at a time when the theater scene is flourishing. I also love independent and foreign films and get to screen new releases through a film club that I participate in. I’m also an avid reader, and, thanks to a book club I recently joined, I read books that I never would have thought about picking up.

On the more active side, I am a long-time devotee of Pilates and yoga, and I’ve just taken up riding horses. I have always loved horses, but the opportunities to ride were limited when I was growing up in the city. I had just enough experiences to pique an interest that laid dormant until three years ago, when I decided that, if I wanted to start riding again, it was now or never!

And, just recently, I adopted a kitten that one of my friends found in the brush by her lake house. She’s only a few weeks old, and she’s already taken over my entire life! So, I don’t know how much time I’ll have for the rest of my hobbies, but she’s a lovely addition to my little family.

If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be – and what would you ask that person?

I would love to speak with any of the many pioneering women who stepped outside of the box they were placed in to buck the status quo. There are a number of such notable women who have blazed the trail for women (and men): Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Sally Ride, Elizabeth Blackwell, Jane Austen, Eleanor Roosevelt … just to name a few. But if I could wish for such an opportunity, I might as well choose someone who’s alive now, so I would love to speak with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, or Malala Yousafzai.

I would ask them: When you reached deep inside yourself, what was it that you found that gave you the courage and the confidence to do what you did – despite the obstacles and resistance you encountered? And, how can I continue what you started?