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My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Deborah Rhodes, MD

Deborah Rhodes, MD

In the 80s, Deborah Rhodes was a bit of an anomaly—having a lifetime aversion to hairspray, she never sported Big Hair, and she had no desire to work on Wall Street. As college friends and acquaintances eagerly pursued banking and other popular career choices, Dr. Rhodes held back. “That was the beginning of the ‘It’s all about me’ generation,” she says, “but I wasn’t that interested in money or prestige. When I eventually decided to pursue medicine, I went into it for what I would later know as the feeling I get when I get a card from patients saying how their interaction with me made all the difference. That’s the best part of the job.” Dr. Rhodes gets several cards each month—a testament no doubt to her excellence as a physician, as well as her contagiously cheerful personality but most likely to the simple fact that Dr. Rhodes just really likes her job.

Baptism by Fire
In New York City, armed with a history degree from Harvard and a complete lack of direction, the 22-year-old Dr. Rhodes found herself floating aimlessly in a sea of possibility. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, so she took a position with a temp agency. But instead of being frustrated by her indecision, the fun-loving Dr. Rhodes embraced it. “I was having a ball!” she jokes, “but I knew eventually I’d have to get a real job.” When she got an interview to assist with the development of a non-profit agency helping elderly New Yorkers connect with the public services they needed, she was hooked. The man funding the agency needed help cutting through red tape and handling daily operational requirements. The job seemed like it was a perfect fit for Dr. Rhodes and the interview was going well until he dropped the bomb. “After two hours of questions, he stopped and told me that he wasn’t going to offer me the job because he was certain I’d get bored. What I needed to do, he said, was go to medical school. I was stunned, but before I could object, he actually picked up the phone and called the dean at Bryn Mawr College. ‘I am sitting here with a young woman who needs to start premed,’ he said. ‘How do we make this happen?’ He wouldn’t give up!” she remembers, “He even made sure that they Fedexed the application to me.”

Once in medical school at Cornell University Medical College in New York City, Dr. Rhodes knew she had to find something she would enjoy doing day in and day out for the rest of her life, and that’s when she chose internal medicine. “Internal medicine gives you the chance to do a little bit of everything, and that’s what I wanted. It was perfect for me.”

More Than A Motto
The Mayo Clinic is the first and largest integrated, not-for-profit group practice in the world. More than 3,300 physicians, scientists and researchers and 46,000 allied health staff work at Mayo, at sites in Rochester, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona. Collectively, the three locations treat more than a half million people each year. At Mayo in Rochester, Dr. Rhodes splits her time between research, teaching, and clinical care. Her research work evaluating women at increased risk of breast cancer has been a career highlight. Along with a nuclear physicist and a number of radiologists, she studies a new gamma camera for breast imaging. The device has the ability to detect small cancers in dense breast tissue, and thus may be better suited than mammography for screening and evaluating high-risk women.

“It’s really exciting to build something from the ground up,” she says, “This imaging technique has the ability to detect up to three times as many cancers as mammography.” Dr. Rhodes and her colleagues have been working on the research for seven years, attracting the attention of the profession and national media. She says finally seeing it come to fruition has been wonderful. “It takes time to do something really important that genuinely has a chance of changing outcomes,” she says. “It’s the kind of thing that takes a large investment of time, work, and patience, but it is so worth it for me.” She also directs a fellowship program and edits Mayo’s Department of Medicine clinical newsletter. She loves the diversity of her job and says being an internist allows her to do it all. “Every day is different. I am constantly learning. I like getting up in the morning because I love being able to do all of the different things that I do—teach, research, see patients—and my background as an internist allows me to do it.”

A Christmas Angel
When she’s not working on research or teaching, Dr. Rhodes practices what Mayo refers to as “executive health.” As she explains, the concept is an accelerated form of general medicine, or the way physicians might like to practice internal medicine in an ideal setting. “We try to compress the initial stuff as much as we can—communicating with the patients before they arrive to see what they need. What Mayo does best is provide integrated care that’s very efficient,” she says. “It’s really a wonderful place to practice.” “At some other medical centers, the goal of career advancement seems to be to get away from patient care….I don’t understand that. What I love about being an internist is that you are involved in every aspect of your patients’ lives. You feel like you can genuinely make a difference.”

It’s this sincere desire to treat her patients with dignity and respect that makes her a favorite among them, and it was probably what a patient of hers was counting on recently when she called Dr. Rhodes a week before Christmas in near despair. The patient’s mother had been told she had cancer that had metastasized to her spine, but the primary site of the cancer was unknown. She was in excruciating pain, and wanted a second opinion on what to do next. Dr. Rhodes got on the phone and right away a team of colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville stepped up to the plate and offered their help, squeezing time in between appointments to see the woman on Christmas Eve. By the end of the day, they had reached a conclusion. “It took us a while to figure it out— in the end we found that she didn’t have cancer at all, but that her spine was badly compressed,” she explains. “She underwent a minimally invasive spinal procedure to treat the compression, and she got to go home on Christmas, with no cancer and no pain.” The woman later wrote Dr. Rhodes a note. It read, “You’re my angel.” Dr. Rhodes offers a more humble explanation. “Making a difference for people, being a good physician—it’s not about being brilliant, it’s about getting involved.”

For the one-time city girl turned researcher, happiness is a way of life. She is a “glass half full” person and the only thing she seems to struggle with is trying to juggle it all. Her husband, whom she met in their fourth year of medical school, is a tremendous support. “He’s made a lot of sacrifices for me. A lot of why and how I’ve been able to be there for my patients and colleagues at Mayo is because I have such a good partner,” she says. They have two daughters, ages six and ten. Dr. Rhodes, once a serious musician, enjoys playing the violin and piano with them. The family also skis together, but unlike playing the violin, skiing is something Dr. Rhodes admits to having little mastery of. And even though she still might be scared to go down the intermediate slope, she does it anyway with a smile on her face.

Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.

Back to February 2009 Issue of IMpact

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