Image: Dr. Patel Childree
Kevin Glackmeyer  /  AP
Dr. Hejal Patel prepares cancer patient George Childree for radiotherapy, at Patel's clinic in Dothan, Ala., from a linear accelerator. Patel lost his right arm to bone cancer at the age of 13, but the experience turned into a motivating force becoming an award-winning medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and now a radiation oncologist, helping others try to overcome the same obstacles he faced 20 years ago.
updated 3/29/2009 1:10:48 PM ET 2009-03-29T17:10:48

Having to undergo radiation treatments five days a week can take its toll on a patient, but having a doctor who is a cancer survivor himself can make it easier.

Dr. Hejal Patel lost his right arm to bone cancer at the age of 13, but the experience turned into a motivating force: He became an award-winning medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is now a radiation oncologist helping others try to overcome the same obstacles he faced 20 years ago.

In his office in Dothan, photographs of his wife, Stacy, and two young children adorn a wall. They are a daily reminder of his second chance at life.

He was 13 when he first noticed something was wrong and started experiencing pain while he mopped floors at work one day. Eventually diagnosed with cancer, Patel had his right arm amputated in May at the end of the school year. He underwent chemotherapy in Auburn and surgery in Birmingham and was determined to be ready for classes in the fall.

No time to worry
"There was no time to really worry about the cancer," he said. "I was a right-handed person so I had to relearn everything in the summer and get back to school."

He spent the summer learning to write with his left hand. He used a yellow notebook pad to write a paragraph everyday, even during his course of chemotherapy treatments.

By the time school began in August, he could write with his left hand. His aspirations did not stop there. With his mother, a retired nurse, going back to work to help pay his medical bills, he set his sights on college.

His cancer doctor in Auburn, Dr. Edith Graves, also was an inspiration to him while undergoing treatment, and as he gravitated toward medicine, he found that he related most to cancer patients.

Eventually he enrolled in the University of Alabama School of Medicine in July 1998.

"I thought maybe I would do cancer research so I went to UAB," Patel said.

He had excelled as an undergraduate at the Birmingham campus, with USA Today naming him a member of its 1998 All-USA College Academic First Team, the first UAB student so honored.

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While winning many other awards, including the U.S. National Collegiate Award in the field of natural science, Patel kept to his goal of becoming an oncologist. He spent two years working as a research assistant for Dr. Donald Miller, deputy director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and realized he wanted to be on the front lines treating people and doing research, as Miller did.

His arm has never been an issue in operating radiology equipment, a feat he credits to his staff, which includes two nurses.

"I have excellent support here," he said. "I have very good nurses. It's not just me that does this. It's all of us."

Although Patel does not need help doing tasks around the office, the nurses do what they can to assist him and make sure they are aware of what's going on with the patients.

"They feel that he knows what they're going through," one of his nurses, Charity Mizell, said. "He has a lot of compassion with patients."

Putting patients at ease
Patel regularly visits patients in the waiting room, joking with them and making them feel at home.

It is this laid-back, friendly atmosphere that makes it easier for 42-year-old Janie Fondren, of Hartford, to come in for her radiation treatments five days a week. Fondren started seeing Patel at the end of December after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer.

"The whole atmosphere is sort of like a family," she said. "You could really sense that in the very beginning. If I went to a place that was all sad and gloomy, I wouldn't want to be there. It's not that way here."

Patel makes an effort to keep the atmosphere lighthearted.

"He is so funny," said Fondren. "He comes out there out in the waiting room where the patients are and he's always cutting up. He's really become like a friend. I never had a doctor like him before."

Patel also impressed 65-year-old Armida Pastor of Birmingham, who started seeing him in January after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

"He was very nice, very compassionate," said Pastor, whose daughter lives in Dothan. "He didn't make me feel afraid about the things I found out."

Fondren said that because Patel has gone through cancer treatments, he understands what his patients are going through and that is reassuring.

"One of the things he said was, 'This is your legacy,"' she said. "'You want your family — no matter what the outcome is — to know you did everything you could."'

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