Oncologist 'hugs' patients through their cancer journeys

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2006 Healthcare Hero
Dr. Sara Jo Grethlein

For Dr. Sara Jo Grethlein, there is no such thing as a "normal" day. Her day is an intense mix of patient care activities and medical education.

The oncologist not only treats cancer patients, but she also attends to her duties as a top educator at SUNY Upstate Medical University. As associate dean for Graduate Medical Education, she oversees the training programs for roughly 450 residents and fellows at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Her duties range from reviewing curricula and accreditation documents, and meeting with residents who may be struggling, to participating in educational events such as lectures or small group teaching.

This is balanced by caring for cancer patients in both the Syracuse and Oswego offices. For Grethlein, one of the most challenging aspects of her job involves finding this balance. "Balancing my time to commit fairly to each goal is a challenge," she said. "These two halves of my professional life do not stay within neat boundaries," she said. "I often bring trainees with me to see patients, and have been honored to have several patients volunteer to share their stories with our medical student classes."

Grethlein was literally raised on health care. Her father and sister are academic physicians and her mother was a patient. Her mother-in-law is a nurse as well. "I have received input from many perspectives," she said.

For Grethlein, the next challenge involves the financial component of medicine. "I wish that things were simpler and we didn't have to be concerned about insurance coverage for patients, but that isn't the world we live in right now," she said. "Especially with direct-to-consumer marketing by drug companies, trying to practice cost-effective medicine while providing the best care for an individual patient is tough. Cost-effectiveness may tell me that a patient doesn't need an extra intervention, but when a patient comes in having seen an advertisement for the intervention, it is hard to explain that the marginal benefit isn't worth the cost," she said. "When it is your life, a marginal benefit feels worth any cost. So, that can be a challenge."

Becoming an effective healthcare provider does not occur overnight. "I think that curiosity is important. I am never satisfied with what I know, so I am always willing to look things up," she said. "I am genuinely interested in people, so I enjoy seeing photos of their grandchildren and hearing about their hobbies. That makes it easier for us to connect."

As the consummate healthcare professional, Grethlein's long-range goals are simply put.
"I would like to provide excellent care to my patients, treat them with respect and compassion and serve as a role model to the generations of physicians that will follow me," she said.
Grethlein received the Upstate Medical Center President's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2005. "I consider my significant accomplishment to be passing on my level of medicine and emphasizing the importance of communication and support for patients in time of crisis," she said.

Grethlein received her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., completed medical school at SUNY Brooklyn, then returned to St. Louis for her residency in internal medicine and fellowships in hematology and oncology. She came to Upstate after acquiring her fellowships.

Grethlein's career thus far has been filled with many memorable experiences, particularly when the journey of one of her patients, Dee Barney of Oswego, was chronicled in the Post-Standard.
"That was very interesting, having a newspaper reporter and photographer in the room with me at every visit," she recalls. "That series of stories reached a lot of people. I have also had the good fortune to be involved with several patients who have beaten the odds significantly. That renews in me my sense of hope, and my understanding that as much as I know, I can't predict the future for any one patient."

Grethlein, 43, is a resident of Manlius. Her hometown is Brooklyn, although she was born in Atlanta, Ga., while her father worked for the Centers for Disease Control. Her husband is the deputy director of a materials science research group in Rome. She has two children: Karen, a high school sophomore; and David, who is a sixth-grader. She doesn't forget to mention her cocker spaniel, "Brownie."

In October of 2004, Grethlein was named one the Central New York's Best Doctors by a survey published by In Good Health—CNY Healthcare Newspaper. Ruth Barry, a breast cancer survivor, nominated Grethlein for the Oswego County Business/In Good Health Healthcare Hero Award.
"Dr. Grethlein hugs you through your 'scary' cancer journey as an additional healing touch," Barry wrote. "Her compassion and expertise have given hope and health to hundreds of us, including me," she added.

Timothy Neupert, also a cancer survivor, nominated Grethlein as well. "This person is more than a doctor; she is a hero," he wrote. "Anyone who can fight and cure my cancer in five months and give me 40 more years of life should receive this fine award. She is one of the best human beings I have ever met," he said. "The only bad thing is she's a Jets fan."

Grethlein gauges the effectiveness of her practice through the warm responses of patients and families. She earned the Anita Award from Hospice and Palliative Care Associates in November of 2002. She has also received invitations to speak to nurses and support groups. Grethlein is the faculty adviser for the upstate chapter of the Arnold P. Gold Humanist Honor Society and also for "Club Med," a student interest group in internal medicine. She also mentors through the student chapter of the American Medical Women's Association. Her hobbies include movies, cross-country skiing and knitting.