To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Troubles

To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Troubles


Leonard Zwelling

In this very disturbing short op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on March 11, Matthew Hennessey reports on a recent survey done by Quinnipiac University in which 52% of Democrats and 25% of Republicans said that they would leave the United States if an invasion occurred here as is occurring in Ukraine now. That’s right over half of Democrats and a quarter of Republicans would not fight for their country. This is repulsive.

To be sure, I have often thought that should a pogrom or a Kristallnacht or some other internal domestic anti-Semitic threat arise in America as was of the sort posited by Philip Roth in The Plot Against America, I would flee to Israel. But I would never consider leaving my homeland if Putin’s storm troopers tried to do to Houston what he is trying to do to Kyiv. I was as shocked as Mr. Hennessey—and then I wasn’t.

One of the observations I have made over my professional career is how few people are willing to fight for a cause—to take a stand for what they believe in. It’s surely easier just to go along and not make too many waves. I personally never followed such a thought pattern in my own career and it cost me dearly on more than one occasion.

As an intern, I was supposed to do a complete history and physical exam on all of my patients and write an admission note accordingly on blank, lined Duke Hospital paper. One part of a history is the Review of Systems, a comprehensive set of questions to make sure that you didn’t miss anything when questioning a new patient. I thought trying to do a review like that from memory was foolish and I introduced a pre-printed intake form for my patients in which the Review of Systems was clearly spelled out so I wouldn’t miss anything. In fact, the whole history and physical was laid out so you couldn’t forget to do anything. This came in handy when I had to admit a sick patient in the middle of the night on less than a good night’s sleep. I was laughed at by my fellow interns and residents, but this is now standard operating procedure and it is a critical part of the electronic medical record.

The next time I fought authority was at the National Cancer Institute more than a few times. First, I thought the use of flaccid new, phase one chemotherapy agents championed by various attending physicians in the Medicine Branch on very sick patients was unconscionable and unlikely to help them. I hadn’t quite been indoctrinated into the mindset of a cancer clinical investigator and was still struggling with doing what I thought was best for my patients as a physician. That one got me in a heap of trouble.

Then, during my lab years, I got very tired of having my lab chief rewrite all of my research papers to his liking using my data. Of course, it was his lab and he had that right, but I resented the hell out of it. In 1981, I devised a series of experiments all on my own. I did the work and came up with a very unexpected series of findings. I wrote the work up and asked my boss if I could submit it to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, one of the premier journals in our field. He said I could but he doubted they would ever accept it. Nonetheless, he put his name on it and we submitted it to JBC. It was accepted without revisions. That was when I knew I was ready for my own lab and in 1984, I moved to MD Anderson.

Since that time I have always been sort of mavericky. When I was a vice president, I took on the entire Leukemia Service. That really caused an uproar, but the remnants of an old-fashioned approach to clinical research that had dominated MD Anderson since the mid-1960s and permeated the research program of that department needed to be put to rest. I thought that was my job. Many of the faculty disagreed. I gave up the oversight of clinical research in 2004 after it almost drove me crazy—literally.

I also tangled with the immediate past President of MD Anderson when he accused me of leaking information to the press. I hadn’t. I told him so. To his face. He didn’t like me much.

My point with all these stories is only to show that sometimes you have to fight for what you believe, even if everyone else thinks you’re wrong. Surely, we can all agree that as Hennessey says, “being born an American is about the luckiest thing that can happen to a person.”

I would like to think that should I ever be thrust into the situation that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are in now, I would show half of their courage and fight for my country. Apparently, most Democrats wouldn’t.

I hope the metaphor is not lost on the current faculty of MD Anderson. What do you believe in? One MD Anderson or individual excellence?

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