STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yesterday, we told you about a medical breakthrough that could make it easier and safer for surgeons to remove brain tumors in children. The man behind the invention that makes cancerous tumors glow is Jim Olson, and today as part of his series Joe's Big Idea, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca explores and motivation of the tumor paint inventor.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: If Jim Olson invites you over for breakfast at his house in Seattle...
DR. JIM OLSON: Good morning.
PALCA: ...let me give you some advice: say yes.
OLSON: I hope it wasn't too much trouble finding it.
PALCA: No. Good morning. While the turkey sausage sizzles, Olson dashes out to the garden to pick some greens.
OLSON: Beet green, spinach, sometimes even lettuce, stir-fried quickly, and voila.
PALCA: Cooking is one of the ways Jim Olson takes his brain offline.
OLSON: It's so yummy.
PALCA: There's also kayaking and bike riding. For Olson, these aren't leisure activities. They're when his brain is free to think creatively.
OLSON: That's when the calculus is happening. It's not happening when answering email.
PALCA: And he gets a lot of emails - not surprising really. He runs a lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he's got two biotech companies and he's just launched an ambitious campaign called Project Violet to develop a new class of drugs for cancer and other diseases.
OLSON: We've got to run.
PALCA: Olson's work as a researcher makes for a full day, but that's not all. He's also a physician who takes care of kids with brain cancer. Later that day at his office, Olson told me more about treating these desperately ill children, and that's when I began to understand what really drives Olson forward. You see, too often he has to go into a room and say something like this to parents waiting for news about their child's tumor:
OLSON: This is a tough cancer to treat. We can't do surgery because of its location. This cancer doesn't respond very well to radiation and it doesn't respond very well to chemotherapy.
PALCA: And that was the easy part of the conversation. What's next is heartbreaking.
OLSON: This is a tumor that is going to take your child's life, and more than likely sometime in the coming year.
PALCA: Olson is sick to death of having to say this, sick of seeing the devastation on people's faces, sick of feeling helpless. And he's made it his life's goals to change things. Now, if you're like me, at this point you may be wondering why someone would choose to go down this career path and decide to tackle something as devastating as pediatric brain cancer. Well, for Olson, it wasn't teachers and textbooks, it was the families he met early on in his medical career. His decision to work with kids goes back to something that happened 25 years ago when he was still in training. A seven-year-old girl he was caring for died. It tore at his heart and yet...
OLSON: The night that she died I was walking home and I was, like, almost skipping or dancing. I was really light. And it was so absurd to me that this really profound event had happened that day and I was feeling so apposite.
PALCA: So, he sat down on a bench and tried to figure out what was going on. It didn't take him long to realize his mood had to be related to a conversation with the girl's parents. He'd assumed that after their daughter's death they wanted to get far away from the hospital as possible. But no.
OLSON: They actually tracked me down and came up and gave me a beautiful warm hug and said her death was as beautiful as her birth. And the reason for that was because of the words you shared with us as we went through this. And we just want you to know that you have a gift that when the medicine doesn't go the way you want it to that you can still help families recognize that a life doesn't have to be 90 years old to be beautiful. And so I sat there and thought about that for a long time and I realized that this was a gift that I had and that not many people would recognize the gift or have it or want to share it. But, for me, it felt like a calling of sorts.
PALCA: He tore up the applications he'd written for other medical specialties and dedicated himself to pediatrics. In the past 20 years or so, Olson has cared for hundreds of kids with brain cancer. Many have survived but many haven't. Olson says he mourns the loss of every child but he doesn't see tragedy in their death; instead, he sees beauty in their lives. It's a perspective he learned early in his career from one family that lost a child. Kathleen Strumm brought her son Hayden to see Olson in 1994 when he was two years old.
KATHLEEN STRUMM: Hayden had a way of, what we say, collecting hearts. And he's a very charming little guy. And so he would run into radiation every day and say here's me. It's my turn. It's my turn.
PALCA: Strumm says Haden's illness taught her when your child has brain cancer, you can't put anything off to tomorrow. You have to try to make each moment magic. For example, one day there was a rare snowstorm in Seattle. Hayden and his older brother Gunnar wanted to go outside and have a snowball fight, but Haden was too weak to get out of bed.
STRUMM: Gunnar says I know. I'll go outside and I'll throw snowballs at the window and - we had Play-Doh - he's throw the Play-Doh at the window. So, I watch my two little boys have this snowball-Play-Doh fight through the window. It was beautiful.
PALCA: As Jim Olson watched how this family dealt with cancer, he realized something fundamental: that for children facing death, enjoying life, taking in all life has to offer, means something very different than what most adults think.
OLSON: A child who is going to die from their cancer isn't mourning the high school prom that they're not going to get to go to, they're not mourning the fact that they won't drive their first car. For a child, it's about are they happy, are their parents happy, is a cute dog going to come in and visit them at two o'clock in the afternoon - it's all about that moment that day.
PALCA: Olson remembers the day he had to tell Kathleen and her husband that Hayden's tumor had come back and it was going to take his life.
OLSON: Their response to that was remarkable. I went up to see how they were doing about 20 minutes later and Hayden was laying in his bed. And his parents were on the other side of the curtain that separated his bed from the rest of the ICU, and they were saying, see? This was just like when you're going to be dead. I'm still there, you're still there; we just can't see each other. And then they would open up the drapes - see? I'm still here. You're still there. That's what it's going to be like after you die. And I've never seen a family do such a beautiful parenting move in my life.
PALCA: This is so emotionally wrenching. I wondered how it affected Olson himself. As a human being dealing with death day after day, and as a researcher trying to do something about it. I mean, he knows he's not going to find a cure for cancer tomorrow.
OLSON: I don't wake up each morning saying, damn, we failed again. There's no more kids surviving today than there were yesterday.
PALCA: Feeling that way would just be a burden to Olson. He says it would make him less creative, less productive. As for the strength to keep at it:
OLSON: There's nothing more powerful to drive you forward than not wanting to walk into a room with no real hope in your pocket.
PALCA: And above all else, Olson's an optimist.
OLSON: The work that we're doing I think can change the world.
PALCA: Here's hoping. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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