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Honoring Louisville’s Oncology Heroes: 2024 Spirit of Service Awards

Updated: May 1

By Russ Brown

Photos by Gioia Patton



Having endured more than eight years supporting his son Marc's ordeal while he underwent treatment for leukemia, George Lehmann developed a deep appreciation for the dedication, excellence and compassion of the medical professionals involved in the field of oncology in Louisville and surrounding communities.



So when a friend, Paul Resch — himself a survivor of leukemia — suggested creating an organization to recognize those people, Lehmann enthusiastically embraced the idea and went to work. Thus, the Marc Lehmann Spirit of Service Award was formed in 2013 to honor those whose careers encompass outstanding service to patients and their families, and since has recognized more than 35 physicians, nurses and support staff from the Baptist, Norton's, Brown Cancer Centers and Hardin Memorial Hospital, Elizabethtown.



The award is overseen by the non-profit Spirit of Service Award Foundation that, working with those leading medical and cancer treatment facilities, identifies exceptionally proficient, patient-centered and empathetic practitioners for acclaim at an annual banquet.


Winners are determined by a nominating and vetting process that involves the Foundation's steering committee, nominations from current and recovered cancer patients and their families, and previous awardees. The 2023 recipients, honored during a banquet this past February, are Mary Gatton from Gilda's Club Kentuckiana; Aaron Spaulding, Norton Cancer Institute; Dr. Charles Webb and Dr. John Huber of Baptist Health Louisville & LaGrange; and Reverend Father Nick Rice.



"The public needs to be mindful that this is a hard profession that would destroy some people," said George, who is a survivor of stage three urethral cancer and whose mother, sister and son-in-law died of cancer. "These doctors and caregivers need to know that their efforts are appreciated. I love having the opportunity to thank some of them. There are some heroic people in oncology. Can you imagine a profession where one is required to help patients face down their mortality day in and day out?” 



"These heroic individuals, who approach their work as a professional vocation and a humanistic calling, need to be recognized and appreciated. Put simply, they strive to treat their afflicted much as they would like to be treated were they themselves in that predicament."



The Foundation also worked to ensure that those entering the medical profession understand the significance of their humanity. In connection with that goal, in the past the Foundation sponsored several future physicians at the UofL School of Medicine's White Coat ceremony.


"There's a big burnout rate with oncologists, especially these days, and there's data that shows the burnout rate reduces when doctors get invested in the patients, not when they separate themselves," Lehmann said, adding that his son once told him, 'Dad, I can tell you within two minutes when a caregiver walks in the room if they give a damn whether I live or die.'"



Marc was a freshman in University Speed Engineering School when he was diagnosed with leukemia at 18 years old. He had graduated from St. X High School, where he was a wrestler and an offensive lineman on the football team at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, described by his dad as a "real specimen." He died in 2012 at the age of 27 after a challenging eight-year battle to defeat his affliction. He spent the final seven months of his life in the UofL Hospital leukemia ward. Dr. Huber of Baptist Health was also prominently in Marc's care.



"Marc was very much in tune with the intentions of the many caregivers he came across in the healthcare setting," Dr. Huber said. "He could tell within minutes whether a caregiver was truly interested in providing empathetic, compassionate care. This empathetic, compassionate care was very important to Marc and indeed is important to all of our patients. As a medical oncologist, we intersect with patients at often the most difficult and vulnerable times in their lives as they deal with life threatening and often terminal diagnoses.


"As we guide patients through these difficult times, it is our duty and responsibility to provide them with the empathy and compassion they need and deserve. In order to do this we need to see our patients as whole persons, each one bringing their own unique perspectives and emotions. Only by realizing this can we provide the individualized care our patients need, and we try to provide some sense of hope and encouragement along the way. This care takes only a little more time and effort, but to the patients it means more than we can know.



"I am humbled and honored to have received this award. I know first hand what this meant to Marc as I was involved in his care during his illness. The award is an effort to continue to encourage this type of empathetic and compassionate care that is often missing in our healthcare systems today. I am very grateful to George for continuing this effort with his great passion."


Dr. Salvatore Bertolone, professor Emeritus, University of Louisville, and a 2015 Spirit Award winner, said compassionate medicine understands the blend between the art and science of healing.


"The compassionate caregiver understands the science but also the human feelings and fears of the patient," he said. "An example: a mom of a teenager with acute lymphocytic leukemia comes to the clinic and says she has two questions. After her 9th question her teenage son says, 'Mom that’s your 9th question you always do this, let’s go.' Compassionate caregiving is the art of sympathetic listening."



Dr. Terrence Hadley, an oncologist at Audubon Hospital noted that he and some of the other doctors jokingly refer to the foundation as the "Be Nice to Patients Foundation" because that kind of relationship is the right approach, although modern technology has interfered with physicians' ability to interface with patients.


"Nowadays, computers are a big part of it," said Dr. Hadley of Norton Cancer Institute, a 2017 Spirit honoree. "If you walk through the wards at a hospital you'll see a lot of doctors sitting in front of computers for a long time. The good thing about computers is we can get a lot of information quickly and coordinate care. The bad part is that sometimes it means less time with the patient.


"So I think the emphasis that George has with the foundation about compassion and spending time with patients is especially important for the young medical students. We don't want them to think that computers are the end all and be all. We still want them to be focused on spending time with the patient explaining things because patients feel so much better when they understand why things are being done."


Marc's father was his primary caregiver throughout his illness, which in addition to treatments in Louisville included an extended stay at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute in Seattle and a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., among others. In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, Marc also received a stem cell transplant and an incredible 19 painful bone marrow aspirations.


"That's probably a world record," George said. "I had a friend who had six of those and after the sixth, he told the doctors, 'That's it. This is barbaric.'


"On a personal level, when your son is fighting for his life at 20 years old, it's hard to watch and you put everything into it. And when you have a nurse, a doctor or a practitioner of any kind that will come to the hospital room and treat that kid with respect, empathy and compassion, you can't thank them enough. At least I can't. So this is my little way of giving back. We've been able to recognize some exceptional doctors and caregivers, some of whom  were involved in Marc's care and some who were not. But they all meet our requirements for proficient and caring service to their fellow human beings."


The foundation also occasionally presents an Inspiration Award to someone who is not in the medical field but embraces the mission of the organization. Among the past winners is Vincenzo Gabriele, owner of Vincenzo's Italian restaurant, who has hosted the awards ceremony a number of times. The 2023 Inspiration Award winners were career parish Catholic priest, Father Nick Rice, and hospice advocate Mary Gatton from Gilda's Club.


Another recent Inspiration recipient was the West Chestnut Baptist Church Zion Legion Male Chorus. Sunday mornings they simply show up at various hospitals and stroll around signing gospel music in an effort to lift patients' spirits.


Anyone wishing to help support the Marc Lehmann Spirit of Service Award can contact George Lehmann at georgeibp1@gmail.com. The foundation welcomes nominations from anyone in the public who has been affected by cancer and experienced exceptional care from an oncologist in the community. Nominations can be sent to the same email address.


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