Dr. Alan Ikeda is the interim medical director at the Children’s Specialty Center of Nevada and the Hemophilia Treatment Center of Nevada. Ikeda is board-certified in pediatric oncology with special expertise in managing the complexities and needs of bone marrow transplant patients. His research interests include stem-cell transplants as well as cell and gene therapies.
Ikeda received his M.D. and completed his residency in pediatrics at John A. Burns School of Medicine. He did his fellowship in pediatric hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and was assistant director of the blood and marrow transplant program at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. Here are the highlights of his recent interview with Lisa Stark.
I wish I could say I always wanted to be a doctor, but the truth is that I didn’t choose medicine, medicine chose me. When I was an undergraduate in college, a counselor talked me into going into medicine. Three times I told her no, but I finally relented. Now I can’t see myself doing anything else. It is my calling. My patients need good doctors to get them through these hardships in life.
This specialty is different from any other specialty, both clinically and emotionally. Most other specialties deal with one organ or one system in the human body. In pediatric oncology, we need to know about all of the systems, because the diseases and treatments we deal with affect many systems. It is fascinating to put the pieces of the puzzle together. On the emotional side, people ask me, “How can you care for sick kids? Isn’t it depressing?” For me, it’s the opposite. Many of my kids are suffering and yet they are playful, smiling and thanking you for the smallest gestures. They bring perspective to my life and give me strength.
For a doctor to treat kids with cancer, they need to have a depth and breadth of knowledge and the desire to keep learning in order to stay on top of new treatments. They need patience to talk with families. I also believe that there needs to be some level of compartmentalization in order for a physician in this specialty to maintain stamina and stay focused. This is an all-consuming profession. The work we do is intense. We need a break from work, and we have to be careful not to become too enmeshed in our patients’ lives through social media.
The most rewarding part of the job is knowing we are doing everything we can to help families cope with a horrific situation. Through clinical trials we participate in, we are improving outcomes for kids with catastrophic illnesses. We are part of the Children’s Oncology Network, which allows us to access the most cutting-edge treatments available.
The hardest part of the job is losing a child in our care. We all take it hard when we lose a patient. It never gets easier. We try our best to help families get through tragic outcomes. The other challenge is recruiting new doctors to Las Vegas. It is a tough sell because we don’t have an academic medical center. Most pediatric oncology centers are part of a major academic center.
We have a wide variety of patients. Out of about 100 to 120 new pediatric cancer cases per year, the general distribution is about one-third leukemia/lymphoma, one-third solid tumors and one-third brain tumors. We also treat about 300 sickle-cell patients and 1,000 patients with bleeding and clotting disorders. We collaborate with pediatric gastroenterologists and rheumatologists so patients can get their infusions here instead of in a hospital. We can treat most cancers in Las Vegas, which helps kids keep their lives intact so they can still be kids. There are a few treatments patients need to leave town for such as allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplants and limb-salvage of musculoskeletal tumors—both highly specialized procedures.
I am proud of the fact that no patient is refused treatment for financial reasons. We raise money through grant funding, research projects and an incredible gala put on every year by Circus Couture. It is a crucial part of our mission that all kids are treated with the most cutting-edge clinical trials available closest to home.