Mikkael Sekeres, M.D., M.S., cannot recall a time when he didn’t want to be a physician. As a child who liked to solve problems and fix things, he understood his calling was to help people through medicine. But it was an unusual choice in a family of English majors.
“I come from a family of storytellers, so I’m the first doctor,” Dr. Sekeres said. “But I tell people that there are many similarities between the two fields. Medicine is actually a form of storytelling.”
Indeed. He has used the power of storytelling for years, both as a world-renowned leukemia specialist and as a book author and essayist for The New York Times. In both arenas he demonstrates a compassion for the sick as well as a deep admiration for his patients’ courage and resolve.
Dr. Sekeres will join the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center team on January 1, as the new physician liaison in hematology and chief of the Division of Hematology in the Department of Medicine the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. After an extensive national search, he emerged as the top candidate because of “his deep knowledge of academic hematology, his experience with the tripartite mission of research, clinical care and medical education, and his record of driving growth and innovation,” according to the search committee’s announcement issued by Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of Sylvester, and Roy E. Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Medicine.
He comes to UHealth from the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, where he worked as director of the Leukemia Program and vice chair for clinical research, as well as associate director for clinical research of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. Always ready with a quip, he posted a photo of a Cleveland street scene on his last day there, explaining “the snowy weather makes the transition to @SylvesterCancer @UMiamiHealth a little easier! Will so miss my wonderful CLE friends, colleagues, and especially patients from the past 18 years. Can’t wait for new ones in MIA!”
His wife and three children will join him after the end of the school year.
Joining an impressive lineup
Dr. Sekeres’ arrival is a notable addition to the already impressive lineup of hematologic oncologists recruited by Dr. Nimer.
“I am thrilled to welcome Mikkael to Sylvester and UM and very excited to work closely with him,” Dr. Nimer said. “He brings such dynamic energy plus a renowned expertise in hematologic malignancies to his leadership role. I know he will be a motivating force for excellence and innovation, as well as an inspirational mentor for our faculty.”
Dr. Sekeres’ medical accomplishments are formidable. As an expert in myeloid malignancies in adults, he has spent the past 20 years studying the characteristics and treatments of MDS, taking part in 60 clinical trials and serving as primary investigator for several Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials. In 2012, he played a pivotal role in landing the largest single award given to MDS clinical research — a $16 million grant over five years donated by the Aplastic Anemia & MDS Foundation and the Edward P. Evans Foundation.
He has published more than 350 articles and 600 abstracts in leading medical journals and serves on several editorial boards and committees. He is also author of seven books, including When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons from Leukemia, released in 2020 by the MIT Press.
As a Times contributor, he pens essays that reveal the life-and-death decisions — and tests of empathy — cancer doctors face. He has written on pressing medical issues of the day (coronavirus and the cancer patient) as well as the personal experience of dealing with a son exhibiting symptoms of appendicitis. (It wasn’t.)
Medicine as a narrative
Medicine, he explains, is a narrative. A patient tells a story, which is then compared to other stories by the doctor, who makes a diagnosis. The medical record itself is a story.
For Dr. Sekeres, though, writing is more than a sequence of events strung together with words. It’s an opportunity for reflection.
“It’s a way of processing and assimilating all this information,” he said. “It helps with problem solving and understanding what happened during an interaction with the patient.”
It’s this thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit that his colleagues welcome.
“As physicians caring for patients with life-threatening diseases it’s important that physicians are able to communicate with our patients and even more so here at UHealth and the Miller School of Medicine, where we are training the next generation of leaders in health care,” said Dr. Weiss.
Dr. Sekeres decided to specialize in hematology while at Harvard University, during his internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. (He had earned a medical degree and a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.) On call, he observed, with admiration and awe, as a 40-year-old woman with metastatic ovarian cancer spent all night writing cards to her children for all the milestones she would miss after she died. When she completed this mission, she asked for morphine and died soon after.
“I knew I wanted to be an oncologist then,” he recalled.
He went on to complete a fellowship in hematology-oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
A changing field
Much has changed since he became a doctor, Dr. Sekeres added. In his field, the five-year-survival rate for leukemia patients has doubled as treatment has improved. The role of physician has evolved, too.
“It used to be that doctors were held on a pedestal, no questions asked,” he said. “Now we view our role as educating the patient. It’s a way of empowering them to reach a decision about their treatment. We’ve eliminated more and more the barriers between patients and doctors.”
Dr. Sekeres believes patients play the starring role in their choice of treatment. An older patient may not want the same aggressive treatment of a younger person with children, for example.
“A care provider can’t presume to know what a patient’s goals are,” he said. “We can’t understand what’s best for them unless we ask.”
The will to live
In When Blood Breaks Down, he writes about people who will themselves to live until they’ve achieved a certain goal — walked their daughter down the aisle or seen a child one last time. This will to live, he adds, is one of those inexplicable events that science cannot measure. But it inspires his work.
“My devotion [to the profession] is to make the life of my patients better,” he said. “It’s also what makes me realize how important it is to have crucial conversations with them and their caregivers.”
Dr. Sekeres is looking forward to life in sunny South Florida. As an avid cyclist, he plans to participate in the Dolphins Challenge Cancer, a tri-county cycling event that donates funds to cancer research at Sylvester.
“I’ve done a lot of cycling in Cleveland,” he joked. “Indoor cycling.”