Alison Friedman, MD, MSc, is the director of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Developing a close relationship with her patients and their families through a challenging diagnosis and balancing motherhood with a career in medicine are the most rewarding aspects of her work.
Why is Women’s History Month important to you?
I am proud to be a part of it, even though that must mean I'm getting old.
What do you like most about your job?
The people I work with and care for. I meet the most wonderful children and families in my job, and care for them with colleagues who also care deeply for them and about their work.
How can we encourage more women and girls to enter the sciences?
Support girls (and boys!) in all stages of their development and advocate for families, working and stay-at-home caregivers, gender and racial equality in wages and promotion, and free access to excellent education for all. Lofty goals, I realize, but we are making progress.
What contributions have women made in the field of medicine that have influenced your role or specialty?
Pediatrics has historically been the most gender-neutral field of medicine, with women having achieved prominent roles at all levels. I don't think this is coincidence. Pediatricians prize families and value parenthood. It was a welcoming field in which to pursue all my goals, including being a mother and physician, in that order.
Have you encountered any obstacles on your journey as a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?
With the #metoomovement afoot, I have been thinking a lot lately about the challenges that women often face in the workplace. I feel very fortunate to not have had any specific times when I felt I was treated as "less than" because of my gender. I recognize that this may be because of the somewhat unique nature of pediatrics as a branch of medicine and the high priority we pediatric providers place on families and parents. I am grateful to all the women and men I have worked with who have been open-minded and supportive of advancement of women in our field.
What is one piece of advice you would give a woman entering the field of medicine and/or healthcare?
Don't be afraid to speak up for what you need in your career to achieve ALL your goals, and don't apologize for your priorities outside of medicine.
Has there been an influential woman in your life who supported or inspired you on your journey into health care/medicine?
Sara Chaffee, MD, chief of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center was a fabulous role model for me during residency. She is an excellent example of a physician who cares deeply about and for her patients, is a wonderful mother, is gracefully assertive, and has achieved a leadership role in a field that is still dominated by men in most of the highest administrative positions.
What advice do you have for women to maintain a healthy lifestyle?
This may sound silly, but take the commuter rail to work. Not only is it good for the planet, but it also can provide a bit of exercise and respite from a busy day. Back when I had three school-aged children at home, I could feel totally overwhelmed by the enormous feat of getting them all off to school in the mornings. After a brisk walk to the train, I would plop down in my seat and sip my tea in peace with an entire half-hour of nobody demanding anything from me, and even sneak in a quick nap. Only once on a Friday night after a very long work week did I oversleep and miss my stop. A kind stranger, who also happened to be a woman, took pity on me and drove me back home.
Describe your journey into health care.
I grew up wanting to be a pediatrician. I cannot recall when this idea took seed, but I was single-minded in my pursuit. I was the first in my family to become a physician, though my parents and grandparents placed a high value on education. Growing up in California, I went to University of California at Berkeley for a college with a major in Genetics.
I was thrilled when I was accepted to Dartmouth Medical School because I was excited to try a new place and a have a different living experience. The glossy brochure depicting the quintessential small New England college town drew me in. I met my husband, Andy, there when he was working on his PhD in Physiology. Being a born and bred New Englander, he couldn't imagine living anywhere else, and except for a three-year stint in Baltimore, Md., for my fellowship, here we have stayed. Although I had always pictured myself as a general pediatrician, I found during residency that pediatric hematology and oncology allowed me to fulfill my wish of having a close relationship and time to spend with patients and families while still caring for "the whole patient." I had some wonderful mentors at Dartmouth who were the kind of doctors (and people) who I wished to be, including many women who had achieved that elusive, delicate balance of motherhood and demanding, rewarding career.
What is special about MassGeneral Hospital for Children?
MassGeneral Hospital for Children is a small world within a big, fabulous, world-class hospital. When I was looking for a place to spend my career, I wanted to be at an academic center of excellence where I could take great hands-on care of patients. Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at MGHfC is medium-sized as childhood cancer centers go, and I believe it is the optimal size and model for providing continuity and family-centered care for our young patients.
An advantage of being a hospital-within-a-hospital is that we can interact directly with providers who care for adult patients and have access to all the resources and innovation that Massachusetts General Hospital provides. For better or worse, most new drugs and treatments are tested and developed first in adult patients. This is especially true for fields that treat relatively rare diseases, which is most pediatric hematologic and oncologic diseases. The ability to collaborate on-site with adult providers benefits both sides of the aisle. For some diseases that are more common in children, adult patients' outcomes are improved when oncologists follow treatment plans that were originally developed for children through pediatric cooperative clinical research.