Health Sciences Report Spring 2005

What single life experience has most influenced the way you practice medicine?

By John J. Zone, M.D.
Professor and Chair, Department of Dermatology School of Medicine

It was Christmas morning and the present-opening ritual was over. I was looking forward to a day with my son and daughter whose own pursuits had now taken them to other cities. My son, Joe, had told me he wanted me to be the best man at his wedding. What a tribute to our friendship that had begun many years ago. Life was incredible. During the conversation, he mentioned a bump on his head. Since I'm a dermatologist, certainly we could make short work of this problem.

I parted his thick hair and took a five-second look at the lesion. My heart moved up into my throat, and I was unable to speak. I recalled the words of my associate Dr. Glen Bowen: "When people find out they have melanoma, they look like a deer in the headlights." I had always assumed that I would be the one in my family to get a severe disease, and, as a physician, I had prepared myself a thousand times. I knew I could handle it. Fathers and grandfathers are supposed to confront these crises, but not sons. Suddenly I was confronted with the unthinkable. In a glance, I knew the severity of the problem and was later to find out that he had a 25 percent chance of dying from his melanoma within five years. How ironic. He was a dark-skinned, dark-haired kid with no family history of melanoma and no risk factors, except his youthful career as a swimmer at the Fort Douglas Club in Salt Lake City.

Surgery would leave a scar on his head that looked like a wound from a medieval sword. Medication treatment would leave him exhausted for a year. But his spirit was powerful and his will was strong. He confirmed that he was my hero, a giant at 26 years old. Two years later, I was the best man at his wedding and it was a great day. But at four years, my heart still jumps when the phone rings and I see his number on my cell phone. My fingers are always crossed.

My hero taught me to practice medicine and lead the Depart-ment of Dermatology in a different way. Each mole now takes on a new significance. When I see the "deer-in-the-headlights look," I can reach inside for words that weren't there before. Each melanoma conference and each patient history wrenches my heart, and so I have rededicated myself to making Utah the best department of dermatology in the West. I now "think big," because I know in my position I can have a huge impact on the care of diseases and cancer of the skin in our state.

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