Hematology-oncology fellows celebrate program’s 40th anniversary

By Mary Hardin

Friday, August 10, 2018

The IU School of Medicine hematology/oncology fellowship is one of the oldest cancer training programs in the United States. Started by Larry Einhorn, M.D., there were only four other major programs available for oncology training, making the competition stiff. Between one and five fellows were selected each year for the IU program and residents from across the United States and around the globe were drawn to Indiana University to train.

The first class of fellows graduated from the program in 1978 and, 40 years later, 100 of those men and women returned to Indianapolis July 20 to honor their mentors and mingle with colleagues and friends at the IU Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Reunion, held at the Indiana State Museum. (See the photo album.)

Master of ceremonies for the evening was Nasser Hanna, M.D., a 2001 graduate of the fellowship program, IU professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology, and a member of the IU Simon Cancer Center. Approximately 150 hematologists and oncologists have been trained in the fellowship, he said at the reunion. Of those, 61 former fellows practice at 24 academic institutions and 90 private practices throughout the nation.

“The reach of the IU program and its impact on patients and research worldwide makes training here a very special honor,” Dr. Hanna said. “It is our teachers that make this a world-class institution to train. Twenty years ago, I was taught breast cancer by George Sledge, lung cancer by Larry Einhorn, GI cancers by Pat Loehrer, GU cancers by Bruce Roth, leukemia by Larry Cripe and Rob Hromas, lymphoma by Michael Robertson, transplant by Rafat Abonour, Ken Cornetta, and Bob Nelson,” he said at the start of the evening.

The reach of the IU program and its impact on patients and research worldwide makes training here a very special honor. It is our teachers that make this a world-class institution to train.Nasser Hanna, M.D.

“No one has been more responsible for the foundation of cancer research, cancer care and training at Indiana University than the four men – affectionately referred to as the Four Horsemen – who are honored here tonight,” Dr. Hanna said.

The four are the original oncologists practicing at the IU Simon Cancer Center, even before it was given the title “center” under university guidelines: Drs. Larry Einhorn, Patrick Loehrer, George Sledge and the late Stephen Williams.

A moment was taken to recall the contributions of Dr.  Williams, who was the cancer center’s inaugural director from 1992 until his death in 2009. The other nationally recognized physicians brought greetings, shared memories, recalled treasured moments and humorous incidents, which helped keep the serious training of cancer care less demanding for many.

“We never took ourselves too seriously,” said Dr. Sledge, who joined the IU faculty in 1983 following a fellowship at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “This is a place where we talk to each other, care about each other and learn from each other. Those are things that distinguish IU from other institutions and make it possible for us to provide exceptional care for our patients.” Currently he leads the Division of Oncology at Stanford University Medical Center.

Dr. Loehrer began his career at IU as a fellow in 1983. Today he is an IU Distinguished Professor, associate dean for cancer research and director of the IU Simon Cancer Center.

“My colleagues were role models to me, as well as mentors and friends,” Dr. Loehrer said recalling his early days on faculty. “All of us here tonight are brothers and sisters of the same family and we all have our stories about why we became oncologists – and that reason is Indiana University.”

Dr. Einhorn joined the IU faculty in 1973. An IU Distinguished Professor, he is a professor of medicine and the Livestrong Foundation Professor of Oncology. Recognized internationally for his medical expertise in many fields, he is perhaps best known for developing the cure for testicular cancer.

As the “leader, friend and trusted advisor” to those gathered, Dr. Einhorn said the fellows from IU are his legacy, more so than his 45 years on faculty, his research, the cure for testicular cancer or the patient lives he has touched.

Sweeping the audience with a hand gesture, Dr. Einhorn said, “This is my legacy. I hope you are clapping for yourselves, not for me because you should be. For me, I’d like to be remembered as Larry Einhorn, the mentor and the teacher.”

This is my legacy. I hope you are clapping for yourselves, not for me because you should be. For me, I’d like to be remembered as Larry Einhorn, the mentor and the teacher.
Larry Einhorn, M.D.

Drs. Einhorn, Loehrer and Sledge were presented with Indiana University flags signed by the 100 former and current fellows in attendance. In recognition of his special role, Dr. Einhorn was presented with a bound book containing 57 title pages from the journal articles published by fellows during their training at IU.

The IU fellowship was many things to many people, but most all agree it was one of the best times in their careers.

Michael Fisch, M.D., a fellow from 1995 to 1997, shared a long list of faculty and fellows who influenced his training and diverse career. “I had a great fellowship experience,” Dr. Fisch said. “A phenomenal set of faculty and other fellows were a large part of what made the experience so positive. The thing I truly appreciate was the huge focus on patients – the faculty was very patient focused which seems so natural but in truth it is amazingly easy to not be focused on the patient when numerous other people and issues are vying for our attention.

“We studied the cancers but also the patient outcomes. The faculty were generous with their time, not just with their fellows, not just with their patients but to everyone. Dr. Einhorn set the tone for everybody with his attention to all aspects of patient care.”

Noah Hahn, M.D., a fellow in 2006, traveled from Baltimore where he is the director of the Bladder Cancer Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Previously, he directed the clinical and translational research efforts of the medical oncology prostate and bladder cancer programs at the IU Simon Cancer Center.

What was the most memorable part of his fellowship? “Far and above everything else it was the people,” Dr. Hahn said. “The faces change but the culture doesn’t. You weren’t just a name or a number. The faculty took the time to get to know you, to know your goals and they tried to propel you to that goal.”

Belgian native Koen van Besien, M.D., Ph.D., who completed his fellowship in 1990, credits the IU program with more than providing an excellent training ground. “Indianapolis and Indiana University constituted my introduction to the USA, its kind and wonderful people, its way of life, its education and medical systems. Obviously, I was impressed. As proof, I met my wife, an IU intern, and we had our first son who is a Hoosier and now a medical student.” Dr. van Besien practiced in Belgium, Houston and Chicago, before settling at Weill Cornell Medical College where he is a hematologist/oncologist and director of the Stem Cell Transplant Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. 

Christopher Sweeney, MBBS, a 1999 fellow graduate, is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He says his career highlight is leading clinical trials that have impacted clinical care. “It is continuously reinforced in my practice every day how I was trained by the best clinicians a person could ever hope to be trained by,” Dr. Sweeney said. “Their ability to share humor while doing a very serious job was a great lesson on how to survive the long haul as medical oncologists.”

Dr. Sweeney is a former IU School of Medicine faculty member and a former associate director for clinical research at the IU Simon Cancer Center.

Now in private practice in Austin, Texas, David George, M.D., a fellow from 2000 to 2002, said, “When I look back on my time at IU, I’m honored that I got to walk a little while alongside great, wise and caring mentors who had been walking the journey for some time – a journey of learning about the complexities of our fragile biology, about connecting with the essence of who people are, and about helping others find hope and healing. Thank you, Dr. Einhorn and others, for investing in me to help me start down this life’s journey.”

Endowed Alumni Fellowship Award

Many of the former fellows have created an endowed alumni fellowship award to enhance the fellowship in perpetuity. Each year, current fellows will be invited to competitively apply for career development support to allow them to enhance their training or research. Prior to the event, more than $347,000 had been raised.

video iconLearn more about the fellowship program.