Recent MD Anderson
History: Is Blame Another Word For Cause?

By

Leonard Zwelling

         It is probably no surprise that in the winter of my years
(okay, maybe late autumn), I should be interested in history. I always liked
history in school, but ever since I spent the year (2008-2009) in Washington,
where it pours off the walls of the Capitol and bounces off every statue on
horseback in the traffic circles like the cars of diplomats’ uninsured teenaged
children, I have become consumed by it.

         The reason is fairly simple. What I saw in front of me every
day on Capitol Hill had its origins 230 years before or more. In case I might
forget that, there were clues everywhere. Portraits glared down from every
wall. Statues of Presidents long gone stood or sat in corners of the Rotunda. The
original Supreme Court room and desks remain within the Capitol Dome. John
Marshall worked there.

Walking
the halls of the Senate office buildings I saw index card-sized black metal
markers on doors in front of conference rooms that had been occupied by former
Presidents Kennedy and Nixon when they were senators. Lyndon Johnson’s name was
bold and prominent on a huge, gold memorial plaque at the entrance to the
Dirksen Senate Office Building I entered every morning. LBJ had been Majority
Leader when the building was erected.

And
if I really wanted to stir the ghosts of Congresses past, I would eschew the
small commuter underground rail system that connects the office buildings from
the north Senate side under the Capitol Dome and over to the
south House office side, and walk the catacomb-like tunnels that barely allow
two people to pass each other. I got lost a great deal making that trip, but,
eventually, I was able to navigate the 45-minute maze. With every step I felt
the presence of those who had gone before me—most with names long forgotten,
some with names etched on the national soul. In Washington, D.C., history is
everywhere.

         One of the great criticisms of this blog has been about its
revisiting of history. I use the blog as a platform to remind the Anderson
community of the truth, as I see it, about blame and credit for Anderson’s
leaderships’ misdeeds and greatness. I hope these stories have heuristic value
so as to prevent similar mistakes from being made in the future and to inspire
the emulation of those who have distinguished themselves by benefitting us all
with their selfless service.

Many
people have told me to stick to writing about the DePinho years until they too
slip into the unconscious memory of past dreams rather than the vivid current event
and recurrent nightmares that they are today. I cannot. For without the
precedent of the events of 2001-2002, the coming of Ron DePinho and the
wholesale marketing of MD Anderson with that silly red line (check out the posters at Bush Airport) could not have
occurred.  

I
do blame the current administration for attaining an all-time low in faculty
morale, moral relativism, group think and near criminal behavior, but these
guys (and it’s mostly guys) are not performing in a vacuum. There could be no
malignancy like DePinho without the prodrome of Mendelsohn. There could be no
nepotism, self-dealing and downright meanness without the conflict-of- interest
and corporate mentality of the prior leadership. There could be no Buchholz, Dmitrovsky,
Leach and Fontaine without the precedent of Leach and Fontaine. Whoops!

These
guys are a nasty crew who treat people poorly and wonder why morale is so low.
They have managed to snooker the Board of Regents into thinking their
performance is anything but the lack luster mess that it is. They try to
convince one and all that the new young faculty they are hiring and
indoctrinating to give speeches at town halls are of the caliber of the old
guard they have thrown out. They are not! This will all be found out when the
clinic numbers start to fall because these newly minted oncologists cannot work
as fast or as efficiently as the older crowd. Of course, once EPIC gets here,
they may be quicker.  More nimble
keyboard thumbs!

All
I can say is fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. That’s
what history is for. It is to assign blame or credit through the root cause
analysis of past events.

The
DePinho phenomenon is a direct result of Ken Shine and the Board of Regents
pursuing the search for more money. No matter what Dr. Mendelsohn was able to
bring in, and it was considerable, it was not enough for these guys (and again, mostly guys). Being the best place for
cancer care was insufficient. Now MD Anderson had to be your corner drug store
as well.

Is
this history? I believe it is. Is it assigning blame? You bet.

A
recession is when Dr. Mendelsohn lost his job. A depression is when you or your
department chair loses his or hers. A recovery is when Dr. DePinho loses his. If
the new Chancellor believes his Navy SEAL training can fix what is wrong with
the current President of MD Anderson, he too needs some remedial help from his
former colleagues in the Pentagon. 

Here
it is:

Yes,
I blame Dr. Mendelsohn for introducing the concept of money above all else at
MD Anderson. It was his financial people who began the departmental
scorekeeping that set faculty member against faculty member where previously we
had all been in this together WITH the patients, not in lieu of them. My guess is that the Board of Regents made it
clear to JM, this was his job. (Remember when that used to be ‘Fighting Cancer’,
not ‘Making Cancer History’)?

Yes,
I blame Dr. Mendelsohn and his dabbling in matters Enron and ImClone for
undermining the purity that was Lee Clark’s and Mickey LeMaistre’s MD Anderson,
although the truth is that Dr. LeMaistre too was on the Enron board when the
company imploded, but he was no longer MD Anderson President.

Yes,
I blame the Board of Regents for allowing a tainted “entrepreneur” to remain
the face of MD Anderson for 10 long years when a change was mandated by the
circumstances of Mendelsohn’s associates being carted off in handcuffs
(Skilling, Fastow, Waksal, Stewart and more) and his testifying before a
congressional committee about ImClone’s poorly done clinical trials (check it
out on C-SPAN).

         No, I don’t blame Ron DePinho for any of that history. But
he’s making his own ‘Cancer History’ and it isn’t pretty either. I hope to be
writing about him in the past tense soon.

         If we don’t assign blame or credit through the retrospectoscope
of history, we will make the same mistakes again. George Santayana said it
best:

“Those who cannot remember the
past are condemned to repeat it,” and “Only the dead have seen the
end of war.”

Leonard Zwelling