In med school, Dr. Kelly Maloney had her career neatly mapped out: She would be a part-time pediatrician. That way, she’d have plenty of time to spend with her own kids. But it hasn’t turned out quite that way.
“Sometimes in our lives as physicians, we don’t choose what we do,” says Maloney, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Sometimes it chooses us.”
It was her oncology rotation that derailed the plan.
“Oncology took me totally by surprise,” she says. “I was hooked. I was fascinated. I still am.”
The deal was sealed by a 7-year-old girl with leukemia. “She was very, very, very sick,” Maloney says. “She had a bad infection; she developed sepsis and went down to the ICU. Eventually she came back up, but she needed a lot of care. I got to know her parents really well, and I was amazed by how much grace and strength they showed through it all. I asked how they did it, and they said, ‘You have to. You have to be strong for your child.’ I decided that if they could do it, I could do it.”
Maloney followed her oncology residency with a four-year research fellowship. While still a young faculty member, she ran the biggest national clinical trial of treatment protocols up to that time.
“We found ways to identify which kids had the best chances,” she says, “and ways to raise their survival rates to 97 percent.”
The research also showed that pediatric leukemia treatments work better for young adults than standard adult treatments do. As a result, Children’s Hospital Colorado treats “pediatric” leukemia patients up to age 30, with remarkable survival rates.
Graduations, weddings and funerals
Young or old, Maloney finds the kids inspiring. One of her most memorable patients was a young man with lymphoma.
“He was in the ICU with a terrible infection, and the doctor said, ‘This is probably the end.’ We needed to open up his belly and look for the infection, but we couldn’t put him under, because the anesthesia would lower his blood pressure too much. The parents said, ‘We trust you. Do whatever you need to do.’ So we took him into the O.R. and did the surgery with only minimal sedation. So brave.”
That happened two decades ago, and thankfully it was not “the end” for that patient. Today, Maloney says, “he’s married with four kids. I still get cards from him.”
She beams. “I get graduation cards from my kids, wedding invitations, birth announcements.”
But she gets death notices, too, and she attends the funerals when she can.
“The few who should make it, but don’t? Those are the hardest,” she says. “When my own kids were little and I’d go to a funeral, I’d say, ‘I have to go hold a mommy’s hand.’ Going to the funerals helps me redouble my efforts—in the clinic and in the lab—to find something that will help.”
She pauses. “Something that will raise our cure rate by another one percent,” she adds.