Tuesday, August 17, 2010

BELOVED MU DOCTOR: Leaving Columbia to helm pioneering Kansas City program

His white clinician's coat covered with buttons from grateful patients, physician Clay Anderson, M.D. (left) has been the face and voice of MU's Ellis Fischel Cancer Center many times over the years.
After starting and operating an Ellis Fischel-based clinic devoted to palliative medicine -- care of the terminally ill -- Anderson has announced that he and his family are going west, where he will direct a new palliative care program at the North Kansas City Hospital, a 52-year-old facility on 69 acres that remains one of the nation's oldest and largest independent medical centers.
Anderson says he will always love Ellis Fischel "and the wonderful people who've made it one of the finest cancer centers in the world."   But "when the opportunity arose to direct a larger program," Anderson (below, Missourian photo) explains, "my family and I decided it was the right time to make the move."
Philosophers, medical ethicists, and religious leaders have called palliative care the height of civilized society.  
Unlike other specialties that seek to cure disease and restore health, palliative medicine seeks primarily to reduce physical and psychological suffering.  The palliative care practitioner, his/her patients, and their loved ones are fully aware that death and dying have now become a part of their lives.  Coping comfortably is paramount. 
Officially recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties just two years ago, palliative care represents a rare new frontier in modern medicine.   Embracing the specialty's unique spiritual dimensions -- a comforting partnership between God, humanity, and science -- Anderson -- a nationally-known expert on the skin cancer melanoma and member of the MU Center for Religion, the Public, and the Professions -- had increasingly focused on terminal cancer treatment in recent years.
Tamed by medical advances, early detection, and increased public awareness, melanoma used to be uniformly fatal, Anderson reminds.   Its once poor-prognosis helped inspire him to work with the myriad other illnesses that make up palliative medicine, including end-stage diabetes, congestive heart disease, and kidney failure. 
Long-time residents of Columbia's Old Southwest neighborhood, Anderson, wife Michelle -- a writer and MU Journalism School graduate -- and their three children say they will greatly miss their friends, their church, their schools, and "everything about this wonderful community," Michelle explained.  
Active parents at Grant Elementary and Smithton Middle School, and parish leaders at Calvary Episcopal Church in the District, Clay and Michelle -- Missouri natives -- originally came to Columbia as MU students, returning after medical school at Stanford University.  "We couldn't have chosen a better place to raise our family and call home," says Michelle, who has been particularly pleased with Columbia's many academic and musical enrichment programs. 
Oldest son Benjamin, for instance, expertly plays at least three musical instruments, including violin and piano -- triple talents inspired and honed by music teachers at the University of Missouri and Columbia Public Schools.
Moving on is often part of a professional or spiritual calling, and Dr. Anderson's call is a powerful one, as this note in a 2010 Columbia Daily Tribune obituary attests.
"The Checkett family wishes to extend their sincere thanks and appreciation to Clay Anderson, M.D., and the entire palliative care team at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center as well as the staff of Missouri River Hospice for their kindness and care over the past year."   Donald Checkett was a retired social worker who passed away in May.
"If the practice of medicine is anything," physician-author William Carlos Williams reportedly said, "it is the practice of love." 
The ultimate expression of love may be the embrace of loved ones soon destined to leave.  With that embrace -- the heart of palliative care -- we can let go and they can move on, with comfort, dignity, and courage -- that abiding human quality Ernest Hemingway called "grace, under pressure."     
-- The Andersons have been long personal friends and my family and I wish them all the best! 

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