The Society of MSKBehind The Scenes: The Women of MSK
Chrysothemis Brown, MD, PhD
Assistant Member, Human Oncology Pathogenesis Program
Assistant Attending, Department of Pediatrics
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
I moved from London to New York to work at Memorial Sloan Kettering five years ago. I’m a pediatrician and research scientist. I trained in the UK and, after I finished my PhD, I was looking to continue my research in an environment that had an emphasis on translational studies in patients, whilst at the same time addressing fundamental mechanisms of immunology. I was awarded a fellowship from the Wellcome Trust in the UK that enabled me to undertake research in both the UK and the U.S. Some of the most exciting immunology research was being done at MSK and I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to work in Alexander Rudensky’s laboratory at Sloan Kettering. After four years I was offered a faculty position in the Department of Pediatrics.
Could you share some of the work you've done?
During my time in the Rudensky lab I discovered new immune cells that regulate how the immune system responds to infections and cancer. By studying these cells in children with immune disorders we have gained incredible insights into how these immune cells prevent harmful immune responses. In my lab we are now working on how these different types of immune cells develop after birth and, in particular, how early life environmental exposures such as the diet and infections shape this process. The immune system has the ability to recognize and eradicate cancer cells. Drugs that target the immune system have revolutionized the treatment of certain cancers in adults. We now want to understand how the pediatric immune system can be stimulated to fight cancer so that children can also benefit from these types of treatments.
My favorite moments in science are generally at the bench, when you see a new piece of data or have a fresh insight into how something works; however, my most memorable moment at Memorial Sloan Kettering has to be starting my own lab six months ago. I was especially fortunate to start off on the journey by recruiting two wonderful research scientists—Blossom Akagbosu and Yollanda Parisotto—and watching them build the lab and begin our work as an independent team made me so happy. We are very excited about what the future holds and I am looking forward to sharing many moments of insight and investigation with them—and hopefully others—in the years to come.
Mom to Alexa Bolton
My daughter, Alexa, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma on October 10, 2014 at the age of 10. After some research, we met a family whose son had the same disease. His outlook was very poor; however, several years later he had no evidence of disease. His mother told me that I needed to see Dr. Wexler and that he saved her son's life. After a long discussion she said, "Mother to mother... get to Sloan Kettering." That is all I needed to hear. The next day I emailed Dr. Wexler and he emailed back right away with information and an appointment time. On the day of our appointments, Dr. Wexler dropped everything for us. He spent the entire day doing whatever he could to expedite testing and scans so she could be treated there as soon as possible. He showed Alexa around and made her feel so important and special. He told Alexa that they would be lifelong friends and he would do anything he could to try to make her well again. It was at that moment that I knew we were right where we needed to be.
We love that MSK Kids has been able to come up with a treatment plan that is special and unique to meet Alexa’s needs and give her the best quality of life. They have a team concept where they closely collaborate to build a plan that is personalized. They also coordinate other appointments as needed, such as echo tests and scans. This makes it totally efficient and easy for the family. Whenever I have a question, I can always speak with someone directly. I don’t have to get tied up in a phone tree or leave a message. I am always treated as a priority, whether the concern is large or small. MSK Kids always finds the perfect way to distract kids from treatment. There is a play room that has daily activities that include making things, games, cooking, coloring and they even have a prom. Everyone dresses up and the hospital is decorated beautifully. Everyone is so warm and friendly. Our social worker stops in frequently to check in on Alexa and has suggestions and ideas for programs that she thinks Alexa may benefit from. The massage/physical therapist has targeted therapy ideas to help alleviate her nausea. The nurses are always so attentive and friendly. They always ask about her interests, friends and family. The administrative staff greet us with a smile and are very helpful. There is an online portal, MyMSK, where you can view appointments, announcements, medical info and billing. It’s a great way to be able to reference your child’s information at any time. You can also send a message to the doctor or team for a quick response.
Could you share an anecdote with the front-line workers and the impact they made?
The person that has had the greatest impact on Alexa is Dr. Wexler. He is the most caring and kind doctor. He is also so patient with our questions and prompt with his response. He is not only her doctor but also her friend. It’s not all business. He jokes around with her, gets her to smile and they laugh. In fact, when Alexa completed her first treatment in 2016, she had to have a Pomeranian puppy. She named her Wexler. Dr. Wexler always asks about Wexler and he shares with us stories about his parakeet, Perche. In my entire life I never met any doctor who gives out their personal cell phone number until I met Dr. Wexler. He said to text or call anytime we needed to. When I worry about what will happen next with regards to her treatment, he makes us take a step back and tells us to focus on what is happening right now. He assures me he is doing everything he can for her. I truly feel that he loves Alexa like his own. Dr. Wexler always says Alexa is his hero but the reality is he is OUR HERO.
Program Coordinator, Teen and Young Adult Program
Memorial Sloan Kettering
My connection is not directly attached to MSK, more so my experience and connection with cancer itself. When I was around seven years old, my great aunt had a breast cancer relapse; a year or so later, my grandmother was diagnosed with bone cancer. My father was in the military, so my mother assumed the role of primary caregiver. Throughout the years, as we cared for our loved ones, I remember spending most of those nights on the roof of the hospital watching the emergency helicopter airlifting patients to and from, thinking, there has to be something I can do to help. From there, I decided to take on small roles, like making them breakfast or doing small chores around the house to help out. We unfortunately lost both my aunt and grandmother to their fight with cancer and have watched several family members fight similar battles over the past few years. It is because of those experiences and relationships with those family members that I developed a passion for providing a quality experience for patients here at MSKCC. I have also always had a passion for working with the young adult population and have enjoyed the opportunity to connect with them and provide a ray of sunshine during their time of need.
I’m the Program Coordinator for the Teen and Young Adult Program at MSK, which is dedicated to improving the patient experience for teens and young adults ages 16–30+ in active treatment at MSK. Since starting this position, I've had the opportunity to create memorable experiences and peer connections for our patients. I manage both our virtual and in-person activities, including a secure social network app and our physical space, The Lounge. In both of these spaces, patients are able to engage in “normal” social activities, connect with their peers and gain access to age appropriate resources to help throughout their cancer journey. Over the course of the pandemic, we have moved all of our programs online and into the virtual setting. I love working with our patients to create experiences they are interested in and connecting with our partners to provide unique experiences, such as private comedy shows, DIY craft nights, movie screenings and trivia games.
What's your single most memorable moment with the organization?
My most memorable moment at MSK would have to be assisting with the Pediatric Prom in 2019. It was my first year going, and I was super excited! Leading up to the event, I had several young adult patients who were on the fence about attending the celebration that year. I was able to convince a few of our young adults to not only attend, but participate in the festivities. They got to pick outfits from the “Promingdale’s Dress and Men’s Shops” and enjoy the glitz and glam of the celebration. We spent the entire day on the dance floor, and both patients and their parents had a blast!
Rachel Bright, RN
Nurse Leader, Pediatric Ambulatory Care Center
Department of Pediatrics, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
When I was 10 years old my cousin was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer of the nerve tissue of the sympathetic nervous system. He was a strong and sweet fourteen year old boy who already showed great talent in athletics and creativity in filmmaking. He was the type of guy that would always go out of his way to make sure his baby cousin felt included. His treatment and passing showed me the role of a nurse and the positive impact they make on patients and families going through the hardest thing a person and family can face. MSKCC developed and have been administering antibody therapy since the 1980s which showed large improvements in survival rates. It was always a personal goal to be a part of this incredible team and to contribute to advancements in treatment and care. I’ve stayed at Memorial Sloan Kettering because working here I’m immersed in a high caliber nursing team that exhibits excellence in nursing practice. Nurses here are dedicated to patient advocacy and nursing is more than a job, it is a part of their identity.
MSKCC has provided a lot of opportunities for me to work in different capacities with some of the most inspirational and brilliant patients and colleagues. I worked closely with patients, families, and the multidisciplinary team to care for patients as a bedside nurse in the urgent care setting, treatment and chemotherapy, and recovery from anesthesia. It’s important to me and my team that patients are able to get the best treatment possible no matter where they live. I was able to help create and facilitate educational courses for healthcare workers both internationally and nationally that work in other institutions. I’ve also worked on efforts to make care easier for patients and families to receive care at times that are convenient and in places closer to home. I’ve functioned in operational roles planning and executing necessary nursing considerations in the creation of a 24/7 Pediatric Ambulatory Care Center and in the expansion of pediatric cancer care to 7 MSK Regional Care Network sites. It has been incredibly rewarding to see the impact these operational changes have made on our patients and families, especially throughout the pandemic.
At the risk of sounding completely cliché, this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. I frequently have moments at work that make a permanent impact on me as a leader, as a nurse, and as a person. I consider myself very lucky to have a job where I learn strength and resiliency from heroes of all ages on a daily basis. Working in healthcare in the epicenter of the pandemic will forever be memorable to the patients and the nurses. I remember a day at the beginning of the COVID pandemic where I was in a team huddle. At the beginning the whole world had very little information on COVID and how the virus spreads. There was talk about national limitations of PPE. There were frequent changes in CDC recommendations based on the most up to date information. Every single nurse showed up for work ready to do their job. In the huddle we talked about our feelings of fear, but we also talked about how we were going to support one another. All of the nurses worked hard to be prepared. All of the nurses said and showed they were in it and ready to take care of their patients. This was the same for every employee that I worked with no matter what their role. Every single person worked together to support each other and to do what needed to be done for our patients. This was larger than us all. I have never felt so proud to be a part of my team.