Patient, pupil and protégé

By Alex Branch

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Chelsee Greer was 13 when Dr. W. Paul Bowman sat in her hospital room and gently explained how he would try to cure her cancer.

Five hours from their Odessa home, Greer and her mother, Lindee, traveled to Fort Worth after Greer’s hometown pediatrician suspected her fatigue, low-grade fever and night sweats could be caused by Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

A biopsy had confirmed it. The athletic teenager was undergoing five rounds of grueling chemotherapy to save her from the potentially deadly illness.

“I remember Dr. Bowman’s calmness,” Greer said. “He explained very clearly what he was going to do to make me better and that my treatment usually had very good results. He helped me believe I was going to get through this.”

That moment at Cook Children’s Medical Center started a relationship that did not end with her treatment. Greer was cured and — driven by her experience and Dr. Bowman’s extraordinary care — grew up determined to achieve her own career in pediatric oncology.

With Dr. Bowman as a mentor, Greer graduated from UNT Health Science Center in 2016 and this summer became one of the first two graduates of the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (TCOM) to earn prestigious three-year fellowships in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at UT Southwestern Medical Center/Children’s Health Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.

The pediatric cancer patient has become a pediatric cancer physician.

“I am certainly proud of so many of our students who have transformed into talented pediatricians improving the lives of children everywhere,” said Dr. Bowman, Chairman of the UNTHSC Department of Pediatrics. “But I must admit that it is extra special to see a former patient persevere and reach her goal of providing compassionate care for other sick children.”

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Unexplained exhaustion

Greer was never one for laziness. In middle school, she took advanced classes, played club soccer, ran cross country and did plenty of activities that kept her moving.

It wasn’t terribly worrisome when she began to arrive home in the evenings exhausted. But then came the other symptoms. She was tested for mononucleosis and tuberculosis, but results were negative.

“One day one of her athletic coaches mentioned to me that Chelsee had been taking naps in the coaches’ lounge during lunch,” Lindee Greer recalled. “I think that’s when it hit me that Chelsee was not exhausted, but she was really sick.”

Life became a series of long drives to Fort Worth for chemotherapy. Greer’s father Darren often stayed home to work and care for their younger daughter, Katie.

Each treatment lasted several days. One time Greer was hospitalized after her white blood cell count plummeted. But usually mother and daughter spent days in a hotel room watching movies because Greer’s immune system was so low that she was not allowed out in crowds.

One July 4, mother and daughter drove around Fort Worth to find a spot to watch fireworks. Looking into the sky, Greer told her mother she one day wanted to be a pediatrician in an oncology ward.

Lindee’s initial reply was one that Greer still hears when people learn she is training as a pediatric oncologist: “Oh, but it sounds so sad and hard to work with sick children every day.”

Her daughter looked at her.

“Mom, these doctors are going to save my life,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I want to do that?”

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‘Do not tower over them’

The son of a prominent Canadian pediatrician, Dr. Bowman has blazed his own trail of excellence in the field during 36 years of practicing in Fort Worth.

He pioneered the first pediatric bone marrow transplants for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the old Cook Children’s Hospital, directed a program focused on quality of life issues for young survivors and is known among peers as a good doctor to call to discuss complex cancer cases.

Dr. Bowman joined UNTHSC in 2008 after he was impressed by the caliber of TCOM students who trained and observed him at Cook Children’s.

Communicating effectively with sick children and their parents is a critical skill for pediatric oncologists, and he emphasizes it to students.

“The temptation is to tell patients, ‘Oh, you are going to be fine’ because they are frightened and you want them to feel better,” Dr. Bowman said. “But you must be honest. And when you talk to the child, you talk on their level. You sit down, and you do not tower over them.”

Dr. Bowman was not Greer’s primary oncologist when she was diagnosed but took over her care when her first oncologist left for another a position a short time later. Dr. Bowman’s manner made an immediate impression on Lindee Greer.

“The first time we met Dr. Bowman, we were blown away by how much he already knew about Chelsee,” Lindee said. “He wasn’t looking down at her chart or asking questions we had already answered. He was completely prepared, and we had his full attention.”

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A meaningful moment

Dr. Bowman the mentor and educator was much like Dr. Bowman the clinician, Greer said.

As she grew older, Dr. Bowman invited her to shadow him. He encouraged her, offered educational advice and was thrilled in 2012 when she appeared as a first-year UNTHSC medical student.

His former patient joined him for oncology and hematology rotations, learning at his side.

“This was a 13 year old who had set a goal and stuck with it,” Dr. Bowman said. “I was so proud to see how hard she had worked to achieve it.”

In May 2016, Greer’s family watched her walk across the stage at UNTHSC Commencement. Dr. Bowman was waiting there to present her graduation hood.

“That moment meant a lot to me,” Greer said.

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‘Stay in touch’

In June, Dr. Chelsee Greer stopped by UNTHSC to say hello to her mentor.

She had just completed a three-year residency in pediatrics at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, where she was twice named Outstanding Resident for her program. She and Dr. Bowman reminisced, traded updates on alumni and discussed her fellowship.

Reflecting on how TCOM prepared her to stand out among medical school graduates from other schools, Dr. Greer pointed to teamwork and interpersonal skills emphasized by instructors.

“What sets TCOM apart is that we are really trained to listen and talk to patients,” Dr. Greer said. “On my first day of residency, I may not have known yet how to order Tylenol from the hospital pharmacy, but I was absolutely prepared to sit down and interact with patients and their families.”

After an hour or so, Dr. Greer and Dr. Bowman said good bye. Dr. Greer and her husband had just bought a house in Dallas and were still unpacking.

Stay in touch, Dr. Bowman told her.

“For those of us in medical education, nothing gives us greater satisfaction than the people we hopefully influenced along the way,” Dr. Bowman said. “And nothing makes us happier than when they reach back out and show us the amazing things they are doing.”

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