Farid Boulad decided to become a pediatrician well before he finished medical school, but his long-term plan did not involve cancer care. “My initial goal in life was to do pediatrics and then join Doctors Without Borders,” he says. “I wanted to subspecialize in pediatric emergency medicine and travel.”
He had already lived in four different countries. Born in Cairo, Dr. Boulad grew up in Beirut and Paris and then attended medical school in Brussels. In 1982, he came to New York City, where he was accepted into a residency program at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Hospital. The second year of the program included a month’s rotation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where, he says, he fell in love: “with the place, the people, the patients, and the medicine.”
The feeling was mutual. Paul A. Meyers, Vice Chair of Academic Affairs in the Department of Pediatrics, remembers urging Dr. Boulad to apply for a fellowship.
“He was very bright, very committed, with a warm, winning personality,” says Dr. Meyers. “Absolutely superb with patients. Everybody loved him. He was perfect for the job, and I think my judgment has been more than amply borne out.”
Dr. Boulad accepted the fellowship, and, as he puts it, “Here I am, 25 years later.”
Medical Director, Physician, and Researcher
Today he is Medical Director of the Center’s Pediatric Day Hospital. A pediatric hematologic-oncologist who specializes in bone marrow transplantation, he conducts research into new transplant therapies that are less harsh and more effective, and on noncancer blood disorders, including bone marrow failure syndromes.
“These children are either born without blood counts, have lost their blood counts during their lives, or have immune deficiencies,” he explains.
Dr. Boulad also treats red blood cell disorders know as hemoglobinopathies, including thalassemia and sickle cell disease. He works closely with Drs. Michel Sadelain and Isabelle Rivière in developing a pioneering gene therapy program for these diseases.
“We have performed transplantations for about 1,500 kids over the years, and our overall survival rate is approximately 70 percent,” he says.
One of the most frequent and serious complications of transplantation is called graft-versus-host disease. Memorial Sloan Kettering is one of the few centers in the United States that performs a special procedure called immune-cell depletion to minimize the chances of the patient’s own immune system attacking the transplanted tissue. Dr. Boulad’s research involves developing ways to perform these transplants in children without the use of radiation therapy, to decrease the chance of late effects from the radiation.
“Always Friendly, Always Welcoming”
Jill Ackerman, administrative manager for the Department of Pediatrics, has worked closely with Dr. Boulad since 2000, and together they manage the day-to-day operation of the Pediatric Day Hospital. “He truly provides a vision of excellence,” she says, “not only for me but for other administrative staff, clinical staff, physicians, and nurses alike. As a physician he truly cares about the patients and families, and has a tremendous amount of compassion and respect for the other staff who work with the patients in these challenging circumstances.”
Ms. Ackerman notes that his passion and commitment are contagious. “No matter how difficult his day is or how difficult the problem, he is able not only to compartmentalize but to keep in the forefront of his mind why he's here,” she explains. “And then that reminds everyone: This is why I'm here. It's to support these children and families. And you can see he genuinely loves them – and they love him.”
The Pediatric Day Hospital, which was the first facility of its kind in the world, allows children and young adults to receive more than 90 percent of their treatment in an outpatient environment.
“In one place,” Dr. Boulad says, “we have the surgeon, the oncologist, the radiation oncologist, the immunotherapy experts, and the research that is coming from the lab. This place is special not because of any one individual, but because we all work as one team with that same goal. That team goes from the patient escorts to the doctors, nurses, environmental service people, unit assistants, and session assistants. When we put all of this together, I think we’re able to bring a level of care to patients they can’t get elsewhere.”
The pediatric team makes sure the child and his or her family is taken care in ways that go beyond cancer treatment as well. “We have teachers, dance therapists, massage therapists, child life specialists, and music therapists,” he says. “The biggest room in the entire Pediatric Day Hospital is the playroom. We try to make sure the child remains a child.”
“This place is special not because of any one individual, but because we all work as one team with the same goal.”
—Farid Boulad, Pediatric Day Hospital Medical Director
He adds, “The best and the toughest part of all of this is when treatment is over and the kids say, ‘Can I go to Memorial? I want to go to the playroom.’ That’s when we know that we’ve done something right.”
One afternoon in the playroom, a small boy of five or six years old notices Dr. Boulad from across the space and slowly makes his way over. Without speaking, he reaches up, takes hold of the doctor’s hand, turns, and stands gazing out across the room.
“Hello!” says Dr. Boulad. “How are you?” The child nods, but his answer is lost in the noise of children playing. Eventually he lets go and heads back to his art project across the room.
“I see this kind of thing all the time,” Ackerman says. “We can be in a very serious meeting, and Farid will recognize the voice of a child outside the room, and he just has to go out and see him and give him a hug. Always friendly, always welcoming. It’s how he is as a colleague and as a physician.”
“A Terrific Ambassador for the Center”
Over the years, Dr. Boulad has found a way to realize the dream he had while in medical school, traveling for a week or two annually to volunteer medical care for children receiving surgery from cleft-palate repair missions. In the last ten years, he has been to Ecuador, Peru, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.
Back at Memorial Sloan Kettering, he is “a terrific ambassador for the Center,” according to Dr. Meyers. He has run the ING New York City Marathon with Fred’s Team three times, and when he’s not actually running the race, he participates from the Memorial Sloan Kettering cheering section. Ackerman says, “He is now the loudest cheerleader – in French, English, and Spanish – outside the hospital at every single New York City Marathon.”
Each spring Dr. Boulad is a much quieter spectator at the annual Pediatric Convocation ceremony. He considers the event “the ultimate success of our lives as pediatric oncologists” – not just to see the patient cured but “to see the patient finishing high school and graduating.”
“Every person who comes to this convocation has to bring a box of tissues. And the tissues aren’t even enough,” he says, smiling. “Because you have something that’s stuck in your throat – and it’s overwhelming. And that’s the bottom line. Not only are we trying to excel at cancer care, but we’re trying to excel at caring for the entire child, physically and emotionally. And I think that’s what makes this place so special.”