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Words of “the Bard” empower New Hope physician

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It’s not unusual for people born and raised in Bucks County to have roots in arts and culture. New Hope resident, Dr. Pamela Crilley is no exception. Her love for the visual arts and English literature started early thanks to her father, an artist, and it was nurtured throughout her life.

She studied abroad to immerse herself in art history and got a degree in English Literature from Temple University. Based on her education and passion, Pamela Crilley D.O, had all the makings of an exceptional professor, curator or the like. So why is it that today she practices as a medical oncologist, is the chair of the Department of Medical Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia (CTCA), and recently was called by the HemOnc Times, “One of the female minds instrumental in elevating the field of hematology”?

Her grandmother suffering a stroke and losing her ability to speak and communicate was one reason. As Crilley sat alongside her grandmother’s hospital bed, with great interest she observed, and participated in, the efforts of her doctors to communicate with her grandmother.

From that point on, Crilley’s interest in medicine became hyper-focused on patient communication as it related to the nexus of patient care, science and medicine.

“I realized there was a whole other side of medicine that people didn’t recognize, but that is equally as important as the science,” said Crilley. “Understanding and caregiving was as much a part of her ‘medical’ care as the medicines themselves.”

The experience with her grandmother also emphasized that medicine is a two-way street. “People tend to think that the doctor treats a patient and the patient receives care. The reality is, for medicine to be successful, the flow has to happen both ways. ... I learn from every one of my patients. With our ultimate goal being to provide the best possible care, we must never lose sight of the fact that we need to listen to our patients and if they aren’t telling us what we need to know, we have to empower them to do so.”

With her new-found appreciation for the science of medicine and the imperative of tuned-in patient care, Crilley started medical school. On the first day of her fellowship, the head of the department made it clear that he did not, “like women in medicine” and that if Crilley couldn’t prove herself in six weeks, she should be prepared to walk away. As it turns out, Crilley found her niche during her leukemia rotation, joined the department and remained friends with the department head.

“I had two choices. Put too much weight in his opinion and walk away – or be my own best advocate and prove my value. It’s an experience I see mirrored in patients who refuse to give up hope despite insurmountable odds.”

Crilley credits her art background for helping spark her interest in the pursuit of medical oncology and hematology. “I am a very visual person. I was drawn to the visual impact – to the color and form – of what I saw under the microscope when studying leukemia cells.”

Crilley also continues to draw on her English literature background every day at CTCA. “There is so much wisdom about the human condition in Shakespeare. Drawing on that helps me speak to patients about the gravity of what they face, empathize, and understand their experiences and goals.”

With nearly 35 years in the field, Crilley shows no signs of slowing down. To her, there is no greater reward than supporting individuals during the most trying time of their lives. A close second is experiencing the stamina of the human spirit, as well as the innate selflessness of the human condition – her favorite example being huge number of people who anonymously donate stem cells and bone marrow to help total strangers.

She also has no desire to step back now, during a time when medical oncologists are doing things they never dreamed possible 5-10 years ago – a time she considers the most exciting in the history of cancer treatment.

“We have been making huge strides in understanding how specific types of cancer evolve and, therefore, in developing better ways to stop their pathways to growth. Personalized medicine and immunotherapy have taken off at incredible speed. So now, instead of a broad approach we attack a specific cancer taking into account specific genetics and other factors of a patient. Every day at CTCA we’re experiencing how this can lead to better outcomes in terms of surviving the disease, years of survival and quality of life during and after treatment.”

Crilley also has vast interest in hematological malignancies – cancers in the cells of blood-forming tissues or the immune system. She feels that everything from improvements in stem cell collection and donor matching to the availability of better blood products and antibiotics have empowered physicians beyond imagination.

“The rapidity of advances and improvement in outcomes in hematological malignancies is stunning. We now have some chronic myeloid leukemia patients who never had a stem-cell transplant and are managing their disease with oral medication. Shorter treatment times, fewer side effects, higher quality of life in the short and long term.”

If you ask Crilley if she ever regrets doing the complete 180 from art and literature to a life in medicine, she will quickly reply in the negative. “To me, this is a gift. I will never walk away from the opportunity to bring support, healing and hope to anyone facing cancer.”

At this time this article was written, Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia had just announced the news of a partnership with Independence, making their services accessible to millions of Blue Cross subscribers.


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