Sarah Cannon - September 26, 2019

Caring for patients has always been in Fred LeMaistre, MD's blood...

His father, Charles A. “Mickey” LeMaistre, MD – a physician and educator who served as the Chancellor of the University of Texas in the 1970’s and then President of MD Anderson Cancer Center for the next two decades – made an impact on the lives of countless people facing cancer. Dr. Mickey LeMaistre also made an indelible mark on his son.

“In watching my dad work, I not only witnessed the important academic contributions that he made in  education and research, but also the positive impact that he made on every patient personally,” says Dr. LeMaistre. Sharing his father’s interest in biomedical sciences certainly helped, but what was most influential was his approach to patient care. It was with such influences that Dr. LeMaistre started to build his own impressive career in the field of oncology and hematology.

Why He Chose Hematology

When Dr. LeMaistre began his residency at the Dallas VA Medical Center in 1979, he met a patient who was a chaplain in the Army. The patient had an unusual complication of leukemia that kept him up at night with difficulty breathing. Although he was not his patient directly, Dr. LeMaistre would often sit and talk with him in the middle of the night during the long hours on call.

“I don’t know how other people define heroism, but he was a hero to me,” says Dr. LeMaistre. “I learned so much from him – not only about his disease, but also about grace, courage and humanity. I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to working with people like him.”

His choice could not have come at a better time, as the world of cancer therapies was rapidly changing. “There was tremendous excitement around the advancements that were being made in cancer research. I was exposed to the brightest minds in oncology who shared their vision for a much brighter future for patients with cancer.”

After completing his fellowship in medical oncology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, he went on to train in blood and marrow transplantation (BMT) at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Wash.

“When I started in bone marrow transplantation, it was a very new therapy,” says Dr. LeMaistre. “Being such a novel approach, it was only recommended that we perform allogeneic (donor) transplantations for people under the age of 45.” While it wasn’t yet a standard of care, Dr. LeMaistre began to see how the future of cellular therapies was going to radically transform cancer treatment, and he set out to make it more accessible to more patients.

Reflecting On Building A BMT Program in the Community

After completing his fellowship in 1984, Dr. LeMaistre returned to San Antonio to establish the first BMT program at the Health Science Center. Over the next decade, the program grew to include the second BMT program in a Veterans hospital as well as a program in pediatrics.

In 1993, he left the Health Science Center to start the first BMT program outside of an academic setting. By doing so, he offered patients in the community even greater access to cutting-edge therapies - but he didn’t stop there.

While serving as the medical director for Texas Institute of Medicine and Surgery, he also became a founding member of the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT). FACT is now the global accreditation standard for patient care in cellular therapies and has played an essential role in driving safer and more successful outcomes for people needing cellular transplantation.

Throughout his career, Dr. LeMaistre has worked with leaders who have shared his passion for impacting care delivery for patients. This was immensely evident through the establishment of FACT.

“It was unprecedented for the time, and we were very much thought leaders in this area of medicine,” says Dr. LeMaistre. “The establishment of FACT was only possible because of the dedicated people in the field - they wanted to help other programs get better, and I am proud to have participated in bringing these leaders together.” Dr. LeMaistre not only worked to establish FACT’s accreditation process, but he also served on the board for 20 years in various leadership roles, including President. 

Throughout his career, Dr. LeMaistre has been committed to supporting the development of his colleagues in the field. He was elected to serve as the 2013-2014 President of the American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy. For Dr. LeMaistre, he says “there is no greater honor than to be recognized by peers,” and he has been thrilled by their collective impact to transform transplantation for so many patients facing blood cancers today.

Joining Sarah Cannon to Expand His Impact

In 2012, Dr. LeMaistre was offered an opportunity to expand his impact in patient care. He was approached by his colleagues Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, Sarah Cannon’s Chief Medical Officer and President of Clinical Operations, and Dee Anna Smith, Sarah Cannon’s Chief Executive Officer, to help build an international network of community-based cancer programs across HCA Healthcare’s family of health systems.

He wanted to be able to provide world-class cancer care where patients needed it the most – in their communities, close to home. “The vision was clear to me,” says Dr. LeMaistre. “To be able to transform care on a foundation of research, and guided by a network of expert physicians and highly qualified facilities, meant patients wouldn’t have to pick up and leave their support systems at one of the most vulnerable times at their lives. That was compelling to me.”

Today, Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare, sees more than 120,000 newly diagnosed cancer patients each year. “No one else could have that level of impact in the communities we serve,” says Dr. LeMaistre.

In Dr. LeMaistre’s role, he is responsible for the clinical operations of Sarah Cannon’s programs in communities across the country and also leads the Sarah Cannon Blood Cancer Network. The network, which provides a multidisciplinary approach to blood cancer care, is the largest of its kind and performs more than 1,200 hematopoietic stem cell transplants annually.

Improving Cancer Care

Dr. LeMaistre has seen cancer care evolve tremendously over the last three decades. He explains, “Today, we are successfully providing transplant therapies for patients into their late 70s. It’s not just the treatment that has advanced, but also the comprehensive care team and resources that drive outcomes. It is so important to support patients through every step of their transplant journey. Cancer care requires outstanding teams of nurses, pharmacists, social workers, technicians, physical therapists, psychologists, administrators and more. It has been a blessing to be able to work alongside my colleagues for so many years.”

Dr. LeMaistre is encouraged by the body of knowledge that has been generated about the biology of cancers and the impact that continued research can have on people today and in the future.

“When I was in medical school, I remember very clearly that when we learned about oncogenes, there were only two paragraphs in a textbook on the topic,” says Dr. LeMaistre. “Compare that to today where we have information on the entire human genome. This has led to an improved understanding of the mutations and genetic drivers that contribute to the growth and development of many types of cancer.”

And with such knowledge, Dr. LeMaistre continues to look to the future. “To have participated in advancements over the 30 years is a gift, but I’m even more excited for the next 30 years. We have the opportunity to build on an ever-evolving body of knowledge to help improve and expand treatment options for the patients we serve.”

“My Patients Are My Heroes.”

As he continues to dedicate his career to advancing treatment options for people facing cancer, his patients remain his greatest source of motivation and inspiration.

In 1985, Dr. LeMaistre met a patient who had been referred to him after she had exhausted her treatment options for leukemia. He treated her with a bone marrow transplant and lost track of her when she moved to another part of the country. Nineteen years later to the day, Dr. LeMaistre received an email from the patient wishing him a ‘happy anniversary’ and thanking him and his team for giving her the chance to live “a wonderful life.” They have remained in contact now for almost 35 years.  

To this day, Dr. LeMaistre treasures every written or email communication that he receives from his patients. “Having been on this journey with thousands of people facing cancer, our ability to care for them has changed dramatically, but one thing has not,” he says. “My patients are still my heroes.”