Dr. Kathleen Bober-Sorcinelli ’76: Patient-Focused Health Care
by Jason H. Pier ’08
By the time she was in fourth grade, Dr. Kathleen Bober-Sorcinelli ’76 already loved science. “I remember watching Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, a heart surgeon in Houston, perform open heart surgery on TV and I announced to my parents when I was 10 or 12 that I wanted to become a doctor.” She set her mind to it then, and her parents were supportive.
Describing herself as a “true product of Catholic education,” Bober-Sorcinelli attended Catholic grammar school and high school (Notre Dame Academy, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur) both in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her mother had graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston, and Bober-Sorcinelli was introduced to Trinity through Catholic college alumnae friends of her mother. She was looking for a women’s college with strong academic credentials and Trinity fit the bill. Anticipating a long journey to her medical degree, she joined the Red Class of 1976 at age 16. Trinity accepted her as a young student into the biochemistry program for pre-medicine.
At Trinity, Bober-Sorcinelli tried to find balance in life by cultivating her love of music – she was a double major in music and biochemistry for most of her time as an undergraduate. Singing with The Belles was one of the highlights of her time at Trinity. She graduated from Trinity at 20, and was accepted to medical school with classmate and former roommate Marilyn Marchese Kutzscher ’76.
In the mid-1970s, medical schools were receiving hundreds of applications for each available opening. Georgetown University, where Bober-Sorcinelli attended, received more than 10,000 applications for the 220 available openings there. Women were only beginning to make inroads into medicine, and she recalls “my interviewer at Georgetown explicitly asking why he should ‘waste’ a slot on me, when I would only get married, have kids and waste my education. He couldn’t get away with that today!” She found herself competing against male medics returning from Vietnam with a breadth of real-world field experience, and she was younger than most applicants to medical school. In the end, her incoming class of 220 at Georgetown had fewer than 30 women in it, and she was lucky to count herself among them.
The first two years at Georgetown were without much gender bias, Bober-Sorcinelli found. She said that all of the students felt a similar awkwardness dissecting their cadavers and learning how to perform physical exams. She did, however, find her clinical rotations in military hospitals very difficult, especially at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in northwest Washington, D.C. Bober-Sorcinelli was not used to the “military mentality of ‘hurry up and wait,’ and ‘because I said so’,” and this was a big adjustment for her. The bigger issue, however, was the “disgusting and infuriating” mistreatment of nurses and female medical students by young physician officers. “Their lewd language and gestures would today be considered sexual harassment by any standard. Hopefully things have changed for the better in 30-plus years.”
The phrase “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” was certainly true for Bober-Sorcinelli. She married Georgetown classmate Richard J. Sorcinelli over Christmas break in 1978, and delivered daughter Elisabeth in August 1980. “Not the best timing! But she wouldn’t be who she is if she weren’t born when she was.” For Bober-Sorcinelli, her internship, residency and fellowship were “complicated,” but she was able to complete her training in New Haven, Connecticut, having two more children, Andrea Claire and Matthew Richard, during that time.
Bober-Sorcinelli became board certified in both internal medicine and medical oncology, the study and treatment of cancer. She liked the idea of being an oncologist because she was able to be a “quarterback” for the patient suffering from cancer. Very ill patients sometimes have multiple problems, of which cancer is only one part. “I was attracted to the idea of being a specialist without losing sight of the big picture – the patient!” she says.
She was invited to join a highly regarded oncology practice in New Haven in 1986. She was the only woman in a five-doctor practice, as female specialists, especially oncologists, were still rare. Many women with breast cancer want a female oncologist, so she made it her business to learn all she could about breast cancer management. She realized that for many patients, metastatic breast cancer is really a chronic disease, like diabetes. Though it is not curable, patients can have “quality time” for years with the proper care.
The disease hit close to home for Bober-Sorcinelli many times. Her grandmother had breast cancer (though she eventually died of heart disease) and her mother was treated for breast cancer three years ago, but is doing well. Still, the most difficult fight with the disease for Bober-Sorcinelli was the development of an aggressive breast cancer in a Trinity classmate in May of 1991, when her classmate was 36. “Auntie Char,” as she was known to the Sorcinelli kids, was like a sister to her. Though never directly involved in her classmate’s surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, she did act as her ombudsman, and found out what it is like “sitting on the other side of the desk.” Auntie Char’s daughters were 8 and 11 at the time. “That was very tough on me,” says Bober-Sorcinelli. “I didn’t suffer the side effects of her treatment, but it was difficult always wanting to be optimistic while recognizing Char’s overall risk. Six years later, when our daughters were looking at colleges, she developed boney metastatic disease. She fought long and hard, endured more chemotherapy and radiation and lived to see her girls graduate from high school, start college and become beautiful, talented and loving women. She died, riddled with cancer, in her home on January 2, 2001.” She would have turned 57 in March of this year. Bober-Sorcinelli reflects, “I was blessed with supportive family and coworkers, who allowed me to be at her bedside. I hope I was able to ameliorate some of her suffering. Spending those last few weeks and hours with her was very painful, but I believe it has given me a perspective that I hope helps me care for those patients who entrust me with their lives.”
A work-life balance can be difficult for anyone, especially a doctor with three children. Bober-Sorcinelli misses the time she did not spend with her children when they were young as she went from intern to resident to fellow, but she doesn’t feel that she gave up anything more than anyone else did early in their career as a doctor. As the years have passed, however, it has become increasingly difficult for her to maintain balance. She gardens as a hobby, but says it isn’t enough. Her children have introduced her to the world of ballet, team sports, being a swim mom and soccer mom. “My son-in-law is a great cook. I’m learning to cook again, this time for fun!” These and other activities have brought balance to her life.
She gets a great deal of personal satisfaction in giving her patients the best she has to give, whatever their situation. It is important for her to set appropriate expectations and hopeful, yet realistic, goals for them and herself. If a patient has a curable cancer, no reasonable stones should be left unturned. But, if a patients are clearly incurable, “my goal is to get them as much good time as I can, minimize toxicity of treatment, alleviate pain and suffering, minimize fear and anger, and help patients and their families deal with the impending loss. Death is a part of life, but we all can make it less frightening and less painful.”
Bober-Sorcinelli says the state of medicine in the United States is a mess, and it is getting worse by the day. “There is so much duplication and fragmentation of care that we waste valuable resources. Americans have the unrealistic belief that we can ‘fix’ everything and that we are each ‘entitled’ to the latest and greatest intervention, whether or not its use is helpful or appropriate. ‘More, faster’ is often inferior to ‘less and better’ but our system still rewards procedures over care. Electronic medical records are great tools, optimize communication, minimize errors and avoid duplication as long as we don’t spend more time looking at the computer than caring for the patient.”
While attending Trinity, she remembers being taught the importance of service to those in need. “When I get home late and grumpy, I try to remind myself of how I’ve been blessed with the privilege of being a physician.” She says health care professionals need to remember why we went into medicine in the first place. Her advice to students considering the medical field: “Listen to the patient!”