A Pioneering Medical Researcher Kept Learning Even Through His Own Fight With Cancer

Nov 30, 2015

David A. Flockhart, M.D., Ph.D. was a renowned researcher and physician who transformed care for patients by personalizing treatments and making medications safer and more effective. He died on November 26, a little more than a year was after being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer.  Throughout his treatment, he shared his personal experience with the disease through radio interviews, public forums and other avenues, addressing important issues such as access to care and inefficiencies in the health care system. Barbara Lewis, host of the public radio program Sound Medicine writes here about his impact on the field and those whose lives he touched.

David A. Flockhart, MD, PhD:  July 22, 1952-November 26, 2015

“Truth is Beauty, Beauty is Truth”: It is the perfect epitaph for a physician scientist. It was his favorite line. Not that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is most peoples’ pick for their favorite poem.

But he wasn’t like everyone else.

Dr. David Flockhart felt lucky that his career was his passion. He loved science, which at its core, is truth.

He was a pioneer in the field of pharmacogenetics. He studied how a person’s DNA determines how they metabolize drugs. For example, he uncovered why some breast cancer patients don’t respond to the popular drug tamoxifen.  

He also helped start a program that sent a sample of a person’s cancerous tumor to the lab to find its genetic makeup, and matched the tumor to the cancer drug best designed to stop its growth.

It turned out that he needed that test. His brain tumor went to that lab. The man with incredible brain power was diagnosed with brain cancer. He found the whole ordeal fascinating. Oh yes, he cried and he railed against it, but he also explored it. I suspect my friend’s first words were “wow” and “fascinating.” There was a stubborn and innate sense of wonder in him.

Glioblastoma Multiforme Grade 4 is a rapacious monster. It’s also rare. No pink ribbons for this one.

So Dave decided that if he shared his story, if he could explain his experience, if he talked fully and honestly about glioblastoma multiforme, that would be worth doing.

Something he wanted everyone to know: The simple act of caring is just as important to the patient as the most complex medical science.

We did a series of interviews on the public radio program, Sound Medicine. (You can read them or listen to them here.)

Then, after the program ended, the interviews continued with two of Dave’s close friends, Eric Meslin, PhD, Director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics and Pat Loehrer, MD, Director of the IU Simon Cancer Center. I brought my microphone, and the four of us, on every Sunday that we could meet, gathered at his apartment to talk about life, death, medicine, science and a bunch of nonsense.

I joked that I felt like Peter Best, the original Beatles drummer. I was being included in this amazing group but sure I would be a short timer, replaced by someone who could understand medicine or had something to contribute. Turns out  I did have a contribution and it came from my own personal connection to cancer. My husband died of cancer two months before I was invited in. I knew how to do this. I knew how to talk with my heart wide open about loss and dying. I knew what to do when someone you care deeply about feels like they have a stopwatch running on their life, while you feel like you have all the leisure of an hourglass.

David Flockhart after receiving radiation therapy, 2012.
Credit Lauren Weghorst

I recorded these conversations from the first one to the conversation about hospice and kept going until his inability to express himself and his frailty diminished him to the point that recording wasn’t helpful.

I don’t know what I’ll do with the mountain of audio, capturing our probing conversations about things like hospice and patient care, and David’s  new insights into what it really means to be a patient. I hope to make it into something that can honor the memory of this great man—he’d hoped to write a book someday. I will certainly keep the bits where he talks about his extraordinary three children and give that audio file to them so they don’t forget his voice or how proud he was of them.

But from all those hours of conversation, one clear message stands out, something he wanted everyone to know: The simple act of caring is just as important to the patient as the most complex medical science.

The science is the truth. But the simple act of caring is the beauty.

And as you’ll read in his obituary, the beauty of caring was something he did for others.  As a student, he formed a chapter of Amnesty International, as a medical resident he cared for HIV patients in the early years when most others shunned them, and all through his career he believed that medical knowledge was only important if it helped people.

I hope you enjoy this archive of past interviews with Dr. David Flockhart on Sound Medicine. I hope you will be inspired by his life and words. And if you ever need those genetic tests to determine the very best treatment options for you, I hope you think of him.