Pulling Back the Curtain: Bill Blum, MD, and Kristie Blum, MD

Bill Blum, MD
Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Winship Cancer Institute
Kristie Blum, MD
Co-Director of the Lymphoma Program at Emory University

In this edition, Bill Blum, MD, and Kristie Blum, MD, talk about working closely as academic hematologists.

Bill and Kristie Blum with their three sons at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Did you both always know you wanted to go into medicine?

Bill Blum, MD: I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta as the second of four children, and there were no physicians in our family. My father was a water heater salesman and, while my mom is an RN, she did not become a nurse until I was practically in high school. So, I don’t think that her being a nurse had much to do with my interest in medicine.

Being a physician was something that I had thought of when I was young, but I wasn’t necessarily committed to the idea. Even as an undergraduate, I thought about being an astronaut or an engineer, but it became clear that I wanted both science and frequent person-to-person interaction in my career. I did not enjoy just sitting in front of the computer. At that point, I went back to what was interesting to me when I was growing up – that’s where science and people came together.

I was drawn to biology, as well as the possibility of helping people. To me, being a physician was an opportunity to stretch my mind and do something exciting every day, while trying to help people.

Kristie Blum, MD: I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and, like Bill’s family, there were four kids and no one in our immediate family was a physician. What’s unique is that I have one brother who is two years younger, but then a sister who is 13 years younger and another brother who is 18 years younger. It was the experience of watching the physicians in the hospital as my sister was born that inspired me to go into medicine.

What brought you to hematology? Did you consider any other fields?

Bill: When I decided to pursue medicine as a career, hematology was always my driving interest. Hematology had interested me ever since grade school. I remember looking at blood through a microscope in class and thinking how incredibly cool it was. I wanted to look at my own blood through the microscope!

That interest only deepened as I went through medical school, and, by the time I showed up at the University of Virginia for my residency, it was a done deal that I was going to do a hematology/oncology fellowship afterward.

Kristie: Honestly, I never considered anything else; I loved biology and medicine felt like a natural fit.

Going into medical school at the University of Miami, I hadn’t narrowed down what specific branch of medicine I wanted to pursue. However, at Miami, I met J. Donald Temple, MD, who was a fantastic mentor and teacher who stoked my interest in hematology. Like Bill, I was drawn to the idea of looking at the microscope and realizing that I could see what was going on with patients just by looking at their blood smears.

Then, when I did my residency at the University of Virginia, it was again the influence of a mentor, Michael E. Williams, MD, that piqued my interest in the field of lymphoma.

What was it about Dr. Williams that made him a great mentor?

Kristie: Mike clearly loves all aspects of his profession. He teaches, he conducts clinical research, and he takes excellent and thoughtful care of patients, and enjoys every minute of all three endeavors.

Later, after Bill and I were married and we were completing our fellowships at Washington University in St. Louis, I worked with Nancy Bartlett, MD, who is another fantastic clinical researcher and mentor. She taught me how to conduct thorough and rigorous research, and provided a great example of how to balance your personal and professional life.

Bill, who helped shape your career path?

Bill: Douglas Adkins, MD, at Washington University was the linchpin, in terms of me getting involved in academic medicine as a career. As my first year of fellowship was coming to an end, I was trying to decide whether I wanted to focus my energy in the lab, working with great investigators at Washington University, or the clinic, learning about leukemia and transplant. Doug opened the door for academic success and got me involved with ongoing clinical projects that he, John DiPersio, MD, PhD, and other members of the group there had already started. Doug made me feel like I was part of these projects from the beginning.

At Ohio State, I worked especially closely with Guido Marcucci, MD, Clara Bloomfield, MD, and John Byrd, MD. Guido, in particular, welcomed my involvement with ongoing ideas and projects. It was great training, and meaningful to me both personally and professionally.

You have different specialties within hematology, but does your work ever overlap?

Bill: We certainly work closely – our offices are just 20 yards apart. Occasionally we get to eat lunch together, but we do not interact much professionally during the day. The area where we tend to interact most is in transplantation; patients with leukemia who I see and patients with lymphoma who Kristie sees will often move to transplant or some form of cellular therapy. I typically see her patients more often than she sees mine because I encounter them on the ward, while there is not as much opportunity for Kristie to meet my patients because of how the lymphoma program is set up.

Kristie: When Bill sees my patients, he likes to play a little game where he tries to convince them to tell me, “I met your husband and I think he’s the better Blum.” From what I gather, many of them are reluctant to do so, but it’s always in good fun.

Bill: The fact of the matter is that I’ve told all of them that I’m the better Blum – I just have yet find one who agrees with me.

What is it like to work so closely in the same field?

Bill: It’s wonderful to be excited by similar academic topics and to have shared experiences. When we go to the American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting, for example, it’s fun to be there with my wife, even though we are going to our own sessions or various other academic ventures.

Kristie: One year, we attended the ASH annual meeting together as fellows, when the imatinib plenary session was presented. That sticks in my mind as a real highlight – witnessing such a practice-changing presentation with your partner. If we were in different fields, we wouldn’t have somebody beside us to understand how momentous that was.

Bill: Also, because we are hematologists within academic malignant hematology in the same practice, we know each other’s colleagues quite well. It certainly makes scheduling easier – they know we can’t both be on service at the same time [because of our children].

Do you often discuss work outside of the clinic?

Bill: Hematology is certainly a big part of our lives. We may not discuss the details of every patient we see, as Kristie has expertise in lymphoma that I don’t have and I have expertise in leukemia that she doesn’t have, but we are there for each other when we need to decompress. We will share stories and discuss the personal aspect of care and try to support each other when tough things happen, as they often do. However, we also realize that we need to make a conscious effort to talk about other things, as well.

Kristie: There are days when we talk a little bit more about work and others when we try to dial that back. With three boys at home (Peter, 11; Jack, 15; and Joe, 17), we make an effort to focus on them and not talk shop so much.

Bill: Usually, we have distractions because of the kids. Yesterday, we had to ban Pete from wearing socks inside the house. He kept sliding around on the hardwood floors like it was black ice! On two consecutive days, he slipped and fell on his head, so the socks inside are over. Hearing that thud tends to refocus your attention where it needs to be.

Kristie: They keep us on our toes, but having three boys is fantastic. It’s going to be a lot different when they start to head off to college and the house gets much quieter.
How did you balance raising a family with managing your careers?

Kristie: I always struggle with the term “work-life balance.” To me, there isn’t a single right way to do it – you just jump in to help the kids with what they need and what they need is always changing. Then, when you think you’re doing it the right way, they get a little older and their needs change again.

The boys are all in different stages now and much more independent, but when they were younger and needed me more, there were certain times when most of our lives were spent transporting them to different activities or helping them with homework.

We have athletic boys, so there was a big chunk of our middle years when we were all on a different athletic field almost every night of the week, but I loved that time. I fondly remember all the spring days sitting on a baseball field, chatting with the other moms, and watching the kids play. It was forced downtime, in a sense.

Bill: I think the biggest part of that “balance” is making sure the kids get the together time with us that they need.

What do you enjoy doing as a family?

Kristie: There’s a lot of playing basketball, throwing the baseball, and tossing the football, depending on the season. The boys are always playing something different and Bill is right out there with them. With the pandemic, we’ve been spending more time playing board games.

The Blum family on a beach vacation.

We also have a very energetic dog, a Border Collie−Lab mix, so you can always hear arguing about who is taking her out for a run or throwing the ball with her.

Bill: As a family, we are big National Park fans, so we enjoy traveling whenever we can. We’ve been fortunate to see many incredible parts of the country that way, hiking and enjoying the wildlife and being out in nature. Planning the trips with the kids is part of the fun.

Tell us about a favorite trip.

Kristie: Visiting Yellowstone National Park is up there, and we also enjoyed Glacier National Park in Montana where we did some rafting and backpacking.

Bill: Glacier was great – the kids were older and we basically backpacked in the forest and rafted the glacial rivers with no crowds.

Have any of your sons expressed a desire to follow in your footsteps into medicine?

Bill: I don’t know. Our oldest, Joe, certainly is interested in biology and the sciences. Jack is more mathematically inclined. Our youngest, Pete, has, as the teachers who have taught all our boys have said, “a little bit more ‘little boy’ in him than the other little boys.” We don’t know what he’s going to do, but we know he’s going to have fun.

Kristie: Nothing fazes him, so he’ll definitely be happy.

Bill: Yeah, if he survives.