Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan joins the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Surgery as Professor and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Surgery as well as Surgeon in Chief for UNC Children’s Hospital. She discusses her groundbreaking work with desmoplastic small round cell tumors, the technique she perfected for previously inoperable pediatric patients, and how divine intervention played a role in her choice of specialty.
What brought you to UNC Medical Center?
I was attracted to UNC because there are many smart people here who are doing great research. Dr. Kibbe is interested in moving the pediatric surgical research forward as well as improving patient care, which is true to my own goals. I plan, in my career, to leave it better then I found it. When I retire, I hope we are treating diseases differently than when I started in the medical field; patients are living longer; children are getting better faster. My goal is to get kids back to being kids and not sick in the hospital. UNC Department of Surgery is growing its efforts to make that happen, and I thought this was a great opportunity for me to participate in the growth process.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Los Angeles, California. I am not so much a Los Angeles kind of person because it’s too busy for me, hence looking forward to being in Chapel Hill North Carolina, it’s more my speed; plus I’m looking forward to enjoying the seasons again.
Did you always want to be a doctor?
Yes, from the time I could talk. My mother tells me that from my first words I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I started talking at 18 months, reading at two years and my mother said no matter who asked me I would always answer, I want to be a baby doctor. I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.
How did you choose your specialty?
I love children, but I think working in pediatrics is a calling. I know some wonderful medical professionals who are not able to care for kids on a daily basis. Sometimes it can be very emotionally draining because it just takes more of your being to take care of them. When I was in medical school, I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, but as I progressed through my training, I realized I wanted to be a surgeon. And then a series of events happened where God pushed me towards pediatric surgery.
In my 4th year of medical school at Dartmouth, I applied for a sub-internship at Stanford. This was a time before the internet, before cell phones, so all correspondence was done by mail. When I arrived on my first day, I was told there was no room for medical students on the General Surgery service; it was full with no spots available to me. I had already moved to California from the east coast, so I was committed to making it work, I said, well I’m here, what are my choices? They had openings in orthopedic surgery or pediatric surgery. Having already completed an orthopedic surgery rotation I reluctantly chose pediatric surgery. My second day on the service, the first day I got to work with patients, I fell in love with it. Every child I saw on rounds, the diseases we were treating; it was a revelation. You realize that when you help a child with any disease, you aren’t just helping one person, you are helping generations. That one child is going to live, and they are going to have kids, and their kids are going to have kids and so on. One life is more than one life in pediatrics, and that is what I love about it.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
If you think about the lifespan of a child, and how much growth there is in the first few years of their lives, they make huge leaps forward. Five years in adult life is five years, but going from a five-year-old to a ten-year-old you are learning how to ride a bike, learning how to read, learning how to skate, how to play ball. There is this massive learning curve that goes on in five years in a child’s life, so time is critical. Preserving that time for things that they should be doing, instead of being stuck in a hospital fighting whatever disease they have is really important to me, to get the child back to normal, at home living their lives.
What has been your contribution to your field of specialty?
I specialize in treating desmoplastic small round cell tumors (DSRCT), a rare sarcoma, which spreads throughout the abdominal and chest cavity. With this disease, instead of one large tumor, there are hundreds of little tiny malignant tumors everywhere in the abdominal cavity. Before I started treating this disease, it was thought to be hopeless; many physicians wouldn’t offer treatment because it was considered inoperable. I have discovered through my 15 years of research you can treat these children, you can help them live longer and you can cure some of them. Whereas before the survival rate was 15% to 30% over five years, now we have improved that to about 60% with aggressive surgery. The cytoreductive surgery takes anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to remove every one of these tumors. Once the removal is complete, we then treat them with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), meaning we wash the abdominal cavity with very hot chemotherapy which keeps the tumors from coming back. Five or ten years ago this procedure was considered experimental, the progress over the last 12 years has come to the point where it’s now part of the standard treatment algorithm for these patients.
It takes a lot of time; progress in medicine is slow. However, because I can have a laboratory where I can study the genes and scientific part of the cells in these tumors, we can make progress a little bit faster. I can make an observation in my patients, go back to my laboratory and then try to figure out how that works into that disease process and how we can either aggregate that or how we can capitalize on something that can help the child live longer.
Is there a particular achievement (professional or personal) that has been most gratifying to you?
My greatest satisfaction is being able to treat children all over the world for a disease that a few years ago, was considered hopeless. When I was getting my medical training, physicians weren’t treating this disease, they weren’t operating on these patients, so there was no technique available for removing these tumors, no solution to make sure they didn’t reappear. I knew there had to be a way to give these kids a fighting chance for survival. I think my greatest achievement has been perfecting the technique, removing 300 to 2000 tiny tumors covering a child’s chest and abdominal cavity and then being able to treat them with heated chemotherapy with very few side effects.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Hard work is no guarantee of success.” – Dr. Claude Organ Junior, former President of The American College of Surgeons
It’s a very hard sentence to swallow. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are working hard who aren’t necessarily successful, but I believe surrounding yourself with a team is the key to success.
If you weren’t a physician, what would you like to be doing?
I would have probably tapped into a completely different side of myself to become an artist, either playing the violin or painting.
What hobbies do you enjoy?
I have two children, so the focus of my free time was helping them grow to be wonderful adults, which they both are. Now that they are out of the house and doing their own thing I am exploring some of the things I used to do. My husband and I used to collect art and go to exhibits, and it’s something we want to take up again.
Do you have a favorite quote or life motto?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Dr. Kibbe presented you with a key, what did that mean to you?
She gave me an honorary key to the UNC Children’s Hospital. It was a wonderful part of my welcome to UNC and a surprise I received on my first day. It represented her commitment to me and stood as a symbol of my role as Chief of Pediatric Surgery, leading the way in Surgery for the hospital.
For more information check out Dr. Hayes-Jordan’s profile.