MD Anderson Was A Refuge From Reality–No Longer

MD Anderson Was A Refuge From Reality—No Longer


Leonard Zwelling

In her piece in The Wall Street Journal on October 29, Peggy Noonan describes the current mood of the country just prior to election day. Her hypothesis is that people are very worried about the state of the country—far more worried than they are about abortion. Inflation, crime and the state of our schools plus illegal immigration are the real issues here and it is fairly obvious that the Democrats have offered no answers on any of these questions. It’s not like the Republicans have great plans, but voters may well want to give them a chance to try to make this country what they perceive it once to have been—a refuge from the harsh reality of the rest of the world.

MD Anderson was once such a refuge, even in times of economic turmoil and war. The best part of working at MD Anderson under Dr. LeMaistre was that I really felt I was working in a meritocracy. The moment I got here I felt that everyone at the cancer center was giving me a chance to contribute and if I did, I would be accepted—no questions asked. And, that’s exactly how it worked out. It was a place that made sense. Policies were in service of patient care and research and the faculty performing those vital functions. Dr. LeMaistre did not take his eye off the ball. He was well aware that the valuable assets of MD Anderson were its name and its faculty and he made his decisions in service of those assets. In doing so, he created a place where work was not work. It was a calling.

Flash forward to the past three administrations at Anderson, particularly the past twenty years. It has been turmoil, conflict, bad ideas, and a move to an administration- and lawyer-centric philosophy rather than a faculty- or patient-centered one. What a tragedy!

I am going to advance the idea that burnout in the faculty and staff derives from the loss of MD Anderson as an oasis from reality. Once, bad parts of the world stopped at the clinic door. Inside dedicated faculty could focus on their patients and their research knowing that high performance would be fairly rewarded, no matter how idiosyncratic the personality of the faculty or staff might be. I knew some really unusual people on that faculty, but they were cherished for their diversity of outlook and ideas. They were the cookie cutters that we were taught to be at Duke Medical School. They constituted a Pink Palace filled with unusual people with a singular goal. Fighting Cancer. Now That’s A Job! Today it seems that the shortest route to longevity is being another one of the cookies.

I know, I know. I’m just an old guy longing for the glorious past that might never have been. But it was. I was there. I saw it. I lived it. It can be again, but the current leadership of non-visionaries must be replaced. It is most unfortunate that the current Board of Regents and Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs are unaware of the Anderson past. For if they were, they would never tolerate the present.

Going to work was once truly exciting. You were doing important work—important to you, important to the world. Is that still true? The Workplace Survey would suggest otherwise as would the increasing incidence of burnout.

It matters who leads an organization. That person sets the tone and the strategy. MD Anderson is in sore need of retrenchment. That starts at the corner office.

The voters of America may well award the GOP congressional control in the hope that it can create a country that feels like a refuge of safety and prosperity once again. Too bad the faculty of MD Anderson cannot vote on its own leadership. Until there is a leader at Anderson perceived as being for the faculty and the patients and not for his own glorification with outside awards, MD Anderson will not be a refuge again.

2 thoughts on “MD Anderson Was A Refuge From Reality–No Longer”

  1. Brilliant commentary. Tells it like it is … and was. I know because I was there too, beginning in 1969. Drs. R. Lee Clark and Charles LeMaistre were giants as cancer center administrators and Dr. John Mendelsohn, apart from a few serious stumbles, was generally viewed as a respected leader. Unfortunately, this era of executive excellence (for the most part) was followed by a period of narcissism-laced administrative ineptitude that has now evolved into a woke quagmire maintained by a clutch of heavy-handed legalistic enforcers. Texas Medical Center legends such as Gilbert Fletcher, Jay Freireich, Michael DeBakey, and Denton Cooley would have been strangled by the administrative practices of the current MD Anderson leadership. From a medical staff perspective (and, by extension, a patient perspective), the glory days of MD Anderson are, indeed, in fast retreat.

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