Pediatric Oncology Pharmacist Stays On the Job With Colorectal Cancer

As a pediatric pharmacist located in Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic, Patrick never tires of seeing smiling, young cancer patients enjoying the clinic’s playroom. The resilience they display throughout infusions, blood draws, and other procedures not only inspires him, but it also serves as a source of resolve he carries into his ongoing cancer care.

Patrick, 34, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in July 2019, just one year after joining Dana-Farber. Since then, he has continued preparing, dispensing, and helping to administer medications to children with cancer while undergoing his own treatment at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.

Although he’s endured some setbacks — including two relapses — being around patients keeps Patrick optimistic about their future, and his own.

“I think about what those kids are going through all the time,” Patrick says. “If they can do it, I can do it.”

That means seldom being away from work unless he’s in treatment or experiencing related symptoms of fatigue.

“When we discuss a new stage in his treatment, especially when it’s around him needing time off, Pat apologizes and worries how it might affect colleagues or patients in the clinic,” says Rachel Wolfberg, PharmD, director, Pharmacy Infusion Services. “He doesn’t want what’s happening to him to impact the care given to others.”

But on the days Patrick does need to take off, his coworkers have his back.

“The pediatric team has rallied to do whatever they can to support Patrick,” says Sylvia Bartel, RPh, MHP, vice president, Pharmacy Services. “This includes covering or picking up extra shifts to ensure he is able to focus on his treatments.

Patrick, a pharmacist in the Jimmy Fund Clinic since July 2018, was diagnosed in May 2019 with colorectal cancer at age 30.
Patrick, a pharmacist in the Jimmy Fund Clinic since July 2018, was diagnosed in May 2019 with colorectal cancer at age 30.

Wedding surprise

Patrick’s career goals were hatched while working at a small pharmaceutical company in high school. He was later drawn to the pediatric population while volunteering at Boston Children’s Hospital as an undergraduate at Colby College. After earning his Doctor of Pharmacy at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services, he honed his focus to pediatric oncology with year-long residencies at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Hematology-Oncology inpatient pharmacy at Boston Children’s.

“Pediatric oncology is a great space for pharmacists to make a difference because of the many medications and support services these patients need,” explains Patrick. “There can also be a lot of challenges around dosage and how to deliver medications; not all of the younger kids can swallow tablets, and you have to be creative.”

Patrick impressed Bartel and other Dana-Farber leaders with his extensive knowledge of the clinical, operational, and financial aspects of the pharmacy, so they offered him a full-time position as a pediatric pharmacist upon completing his residency in July 2018.

During this time, Patrick reached another personal milestone when he became engaged to his now wife, Christine. Together, they began planning a Colorado wedding for the next summer.

Pat and his wife, Christine, married in Colorado in the summer of 2019 — a month after Pat started chemotherapy for colon cancer.
Pat and his wife, Christine, married in Colorado in the summer of 2019 — a month after Pat started chemotherapy for colon cancer.

As the big day neared, Patrick — a voracious runner who has completed several marathons — began feeling unusually tired while jogging. Initial tests suggested anemia, but a CT scan, colonoscopy, and biopsy confirmed it was colorectal cancer.

“I had half my colon removed, got my port placement, and then had my first round of chemo a month before the wedding,” Patrick recalls. “We considered postponing it, but everybody had their plane tickets and we thought it would be a great pick-me-up if I felt good enough to go. I did — and it was.”

Time for smiles

The new groom completed six months of chemotherapy and went into remission. When the cancer returned four months later in February 2020, he was switched to an immunotherapy protocol that he’s been on since — including through a second relapse and advanced disease that required radiation treatment.

Helping him along each step has been Christine, friends and extended family, and a clinical team at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center led by Matthew Yurgelun, MD. Additional support comes from Dana-Farber’s Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center, which offers resources to meet the unique needs of individuals diagnosed before age 50. Yurgelun says that patients like Patrick whose colorectal cancer is found early and contains cells with a genetic phenomenon known as microsatellite instability (or MSI-high), are especially good candidates for immunotherapy as standard treatment.    

“Immunotherapy can be game-changing for them,” explains Yurgelun. “Some individuals can experience long-term disease control and possibly even eradication of cancer in situations where that previously wasn’t considered possible.”

This means more time that Patrick can devote to Christine, their new house, and starting a family — along with more work hours soaking up smiles in the Jimmy Fund Clinic.