Handling With Care: Alumnus guides families through pediatric cancer

Pediatric neuro-oncologist Stephen Gilheeney ’95 MMSc’97 MD’99 works with children and families affected by brain and spinal cord tumors. Although COVID-19 has changed the way he practices, he credits his experience at Brown—both as an undergraduate and in the Warren Alpert Medical School—with helping him become an exceptional physician.

Dr. Stephen Gilheeney knew he wanted to go into medicine when he applied to be an undergraduate at Brown. His path from College Hill to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he currently treats children and young adults with brain and spinal cord tumors, is the result of what he calls "a series of very happy accidents."

Handling With Care


Pediatric neuro-oncologist Stephen Gilheeney ’95 MMSc’97 MD’99 works with children and families affected by brain and spinal cord tumors.

Below, he talks a bit more about the influence of his Brown education, how the current COVID-19 pandemic has changed his work, and being a recipient of medical school financial aid.

What first attracted you to Brown?

I was a native Rhode Islander. I grew up my entire life knowing Brown, that big university up on the hill up on the East Side. There's just something that always, even as a youngster, seemed a little bit magical about it to me. When it came time for me to look at colleges, I heard that Brown had this program where you would apply as a first-year student and, if you got in, you'd already have a place in medical school four years down the line. That offered real freedom because it let you just enjoy college for college. I really liked the idea of that.

What was your undergraduate experience like?

I started as a psychology concentrator, and by the second semester of my first year I had taken almost every course in the department that I had any interest in taking. So, I opened the course announcement bulletin, went through, and circled all these things that interested me. I actually wound up changing my concentration midway through my sophomore year to biomedical engineering. I took my upper-level engineering classes, but I also took acting just because it sounded fun. The professor said to me, "Stephen, doctors need to be actors."

That freedom was just so attractive to me. It's part of why I love Brown so much. I got to actually explore who I was, what I wanted to learn, and how I wanted to learn it. I took an undergraduate philosophy class that was about ethical issues with children. The course was led by two professors: one was from the philosophy department and the other was a man named Dr. Edwin Forman, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Hasbro Children's Hospital. I remember that being one of the first things that made me realize I wanted to work with kids for the rest of my life.

Later, as a medical student, I had the opportunity to observe Dr. Foreman interacting with the sickest of children and interacting with their families. He always addressed the kids directly. When you're a pediatrician, half is talking to the child and half is talking to the family: they are both your patients. So, when I work with my families, the first thing I do—no matter what is going on—is just say "hi" to the child and then address the patient's family.

How else did your medical education influence your interactions with patients?

In the first two years of medical school, you're learning about what's supposed to happen when the body is working right and what happens when things go wrong. The third year, you're building on those two, and you're starting to actually see patients. Part of that is learning about some of the more difficult topics in medicine, like taking a substance abuse history or asking about spousal and domestic partner abuse. In those first few years of medical school, we focused a good deal on learning how to communicate with patients.

That's important because the bulk of what I do is interacting with kids and families who are going through the most difficult parts of their lives. It's about being human and trying to put yourself in the minds of your patients and their families, and thinking about how you would want a doctor to interact with you in that situation. The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University builds that special kind of physician. It starts with the students being truly multifaceted individuals. And when we start off with that, you're going to make really great doctors.

New York City has been a national hotspot for COVID-19. How has this reality changed the way you work?

In pediatrics at Memorial Sloan Kettering, we haven't seen many symptomatic infections in our patients. But the way we practice has changed dramatically. We've had to limit the number of patients who come to the hospital. We're doing video visits with kids and families. Throughout medical school and training, I never thought I'd practice like this. But "first, do no harm," in some cases now, means keeping your patient away. One thing that has been a stark change for me is the way that social distancing has had to apply when I do see my patients in person. I'm a hugger. Now I can't do that! We're using air hugs, elbow bumps, whatever we can do to convey honest sympathy behind a mask and a face shield. We'll get through this. I know we will. But I will be interested to see what the human aspect of medicine looks like on the other side.

As a recipient of a medical student scholarship, why do you think it’s important to support the training of aspiring physicians?

Today's medical student is the person that will find the next big advancement in medicine 15 or 20 years down the line. They will cure cancer and put me out of a job or develop the technology to grow brain cells back for people who have had a stroke. If that person does not go to medical school based on the thought of amassing that amount of debt, that's a big loss.

We're all going to be sick one day. We're all going to be in a hospital at some point in our lives. The person who's going to take care of you will have gone through medical school and taken on this burden—financial and in terms of time and effort—just to be there. I try and make it a point to give back to Brown and to the medical school every year because somebody else donated and helped me. Their gift made it a little bit easier for me to focus on learning, to figure out what I wanted to do as a doctor, and then to go ahead and do it. And I'm very grateful for that.

(May 2020)