Without even thinking about it, we’re accustomed to thinking of the individual person as the social unit of medicine. Each patient has his or her own medical record, an individual history, a diagnosis (or a set of them), a treatment plan. One patient’s name is written on the prescription. Likewise, each individual doctor earns a medical degree with her own name on it, an individual medical license, and perhaps leads an individual research agenda as a principal investigator.
We’re used to things working this way, but it isn’t the only way. The stories in this issue of Penn Medicine invite you to widen your perspective to take on the family around each individual.
Family is central to the experience of inherited diseases and inherited disease risk. As shown through a patient-family’s moving example in our cover story about Penn’s Basser Center for BRCA, mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, once discovered, ripple with implications among siblings, children, nieces and nephews, and generations to come. Entire families journey together through the experiences of genetic testing, decisions about preventive care, treatment when needed, and working with researchers toward ever-better options for future generations.
The cover art that accompanies the story, a portrait painted by Penn medical student Lizz Card, is another nod to the central importance of families in this issue. Portraiture has historically been a way that families could remember a loved one no longer with them; this one captures a happy moment with Basser family matriarch Pearl, who died last year; Faith, who the family lost to ovarian cancer in 2002; and surviving younger sisters Shari Potter and Mindy Gray. Mindy, with husband Jon Gray, established the center at Penn named in Faith’s honor to advance research and care for BRCA-related cancer.
Family is inspiration—not just on the scale of grand investments like the establishment of the Basser Center, but on the most intimate level. Katie Magoon, a third-year medical student at Penn, grew up hearing her mother’s stories about working as a physician when she had few women among her peers. As her mom’s verbal communication ability began to decline due to Parkinson’s disease, Katie was inspired to capture these stories and many more in an oral history project on women in medicine.
And family is sometimes the framework for how medical advances get made, as in the story of Jean Bennett, MD, PhD, and Albert Maguire, MD. A couple who met and married during medical school, Bennett and Maguire joined forces to unite her skill in molecular biology with his as a retinal surgeon and work toward a shared vision—now achieved—of a gene therapy to reverse congenital blindness. Along the way, they leaned on one another’s personal strengths, raised three children, and adopted two canine study participants into their family.
Perhaps most importantly, family can be the best of what great medical breakthroughs can offer. Just look at Bill Ludwig, the first patient to participate in human trials of a now newly FDA approved CAR T cell therapy, in 2010. He was near death from leukemia at that time and out of options. But today he has had years more to spend with his wife traveling across the country. He has seen the birth of grandchildren he might have never met, and he has watched them grow. It would be true to say that a remarkable advance in medicine saved Ludwig’s life as an individual—but family is what medicine gave back to him.
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