Rituals of the Season

Alice Ma, MD
Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill

I’ll never forget my first American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting.

I was a second-year fellow and a novice at “ASHing.” My mentors had agreed to let me go to the meeting, which was held in Nashville that year, but hadn’t counseled me about the ins and outs of registration and housing. I registered for the meeting in the fall (by now, ASH aficionados are probably groaning at the naïve trainee who didn’t claim a spot at the peak of summer) and the only hotel left was the Med Inn, where families and patients from Vanderbilt University Medical Center stay.

My soon-to-be long-term ASH annual meeting roommate, Gowthami Arepally, MD, was not amused. She had gone to medical school at Vanderbilt, knew Nashville, and was simply astonished at my hotel choice. She called around and was amazed. Did I know that all the hotels were booked solid?

I can’t tell you exactly where in Nashville the hotel was, but it definitely wasn’t close to Opryland, the conference venue. Like me, the hotel’s front desk clerk was new to the ASH annual meeting. He was gobsmacked that I expected to take a shuttle bus to the meeting at Opryland; the Med Inn’s shuttle ran to Vanderbilt.

Hit kin go to Baptist Hospital and hit kin go to the airport, but hit don’t run to Opryland,” he assured me earnestly in his Tennessee drawl. He called Opryland to make sure that he was right – he wasn’t – and got all the details about where and when the annual meeting shuttle picked meeting attendees up. He promptly put me on the next bus which was, incidentally, the Jim Beam tour of Nashville, and not the ASH shuttle at all.

So, rather than attending an education session on coagulopathies, I got an informative, $27 tour of Nashville. (Did you know that Nashville has the longest continuously occupied State Capitol building? Uh huh. Neither did I.)

And then there was the conference venue … The folks at Opryland could be grouped into two nonintersecting demographics: solemn, slightly grumpy professionals in a hurry to get to their next session and tourists in rhinestone-studded denim suits marveling at the Christmas decorations. This was a non-harmonious group dynamic, especially at lunchtime.

Once the logistics worked themselves out and I actually made it to the venue, good golly was I amazed at the hugeness of the ASH annual meeting! As a first-time attendee and a second-year fellow, I was simply overwhelmed by the wealth of session choices. Lymphoma, platelets, or transplant? Scientific or educational sessions? And don’t forget about the posters and the general session hall with all the ASH banners and the multitude of screens projecting faces of speakers.

“It’s just like Chairman Mao in the Great Hall of the People,” I marveled to colleagues. I went back home with an overloaded brain, sore feet, enthusiasm for all of hematology, and a determination to learn more and be a better clinician.

There have been other memorable ASH annual meetings. There was the meeting in Philadelphia during the nor’easter, which was memorable for canceled flights and nearly a foot of snow. North Carolina was without electricity from an ice storm, and I think I jumped the taxi line in my hurry to get to my hotel. Then there was the annual meeting planned for New Orleans that was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Do you all remember how amazing it was that we were able to take advantage of Atlanta’s newly constructed convention center? ASH staff worked miracles and moved the entire meeting – with just a week’s delay – and it appeared that every speaker but one was able to rearrange his or her schedule to attend.

ASH just sparks that kind of loyalty in its devotees. The 2017 annual meeting also was marred by snow (darn snow! Who expects snow in December, for goodness sake?!) Many speakers weren’t able to make it to Atlanta due to flight cancellations, but everyone’s colleagues stepped up, and the ASH annual meeting soldiered on.

Since my first ASH annual meeting – I think I might be up to 24 or 25 consecutive meetings by now – I have established a few traditions: I still room with Dr. Arepally, I still meet up with colleagues and pals from around the country, and Marc Kahn, MD, MBA, and I still skip the Ham-Wasserman Lecture to have lunch and catch up – even when we really want to hear the talk. Friday nights are devoted to grabbing dinner at some Asian dive restaurant with a group of friends and colleagues who join me for food and fellowship. And I still wonder why the floors in the poster hall are so hard.

A few things have changed, though. Now, on Sunday nights, I take my trainees out for dinner. And the annual meeting now coincides with many other meetings, like administrative meetings, committee meetings, and study meetings – enough to keep me from attending the talks I might otherwise have on my agenda.

Twenty-five years in, there is still more to see than I have time for. I’m no longer tempted by transplant talks or lymphoma sessions, but I try to make time for something on a topic with which I’m unfamiliar. I would like to give a shout-out to Robert Brodsky, MD, who chaired this year’s “Hemolytic Anemia: A Cornucopia of Causes” education session, and whose talk almost had me able to understand and recall the details of complement activation.

The latest meeting was also notable for ASH-a-Palooza – a tour de force conceived by the Trainee Council and implemented by the Committee on Training. More than 1,200 trainees and faculty came to Petco Park, home of Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres, to learn about hematology – reaffirming that learning about the blood is really, really cool and that hematologists can be super smart and still have fun.

After the 2018 ASH Annual Meeting, I’m still going home with a full brain, sore feet, an enthusiasm for hematology, and a determination to learn more and be better in the coming year.

See you all next year!