|Mary and Gordon Grado during EIU Homecoming 2014 parade
As Charleston native Gordon Grado was beginning his studies to become a doctor, he was also hoping to get some practical experience in the field.
“I wanted to know what to do to improve my chances of getting into med school,” he recalled.
His pre-med advisers told him what classes to take, but “there were no suggestions regarding volunteer work,” he said. “I made inquiries on my own at the old Charleston hospital with hopes to volunteer there as a student.”
The answer was a disappointing one. “Nope, they didn’t want me at all,” he said.
Eventually, local physicians – L.R. Montemayor of Charleston and David Wilbur of Mattoon – “let me follow around with them.”
Grado went on to earn his bachelor’s degree (with high honors) in zoology, with a chemistry minor, from Eastern Illinois University in 1974. He attended the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, where he received his medical degree and became interested in brachytherapy for the treatment of cancer. He completed his internship at the University of Chicago followed by a residency to specialize in the treatment of cancer with radiation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Now the world-renowned oncologist and founder/medical director of the Southwest Oncology Centers and the Grado Radiation Center of Excellence, Grado hopes to give pre-med students at EIU the opportunity he, himself, had yearned for but never received. “With my experience, I thought I could be helpful,” he said.
Nearly four years ago, Grado began offering EIU pre-med students the chance to spend two weeks between semesters at his Scottsdale, Ariz., clinic.
“I wanted to offer opportunities for undergraduate students to start learning how to ‘talk doctor,’ how to interact with people,” Grado said. “That doesn’t usually seem to happen until late in the first or second year of med school.”
While at the clinic, students learn “in a situation where they can’t really do anything wrong,” Grado said. “No classes, no grades. Just participation – meet doctors, meet patients. Get to know the ballet (procedure) and smells of the hospital.”
In addition to meeting one-on-one with Grado and his wife, Mary, who serves as the clinic administrator, visiting students also get to “hang out” in the doctors’ lounges and go on daily rotations with other medical personnel (e.g., doctors, nurses, radiologists, anesthesiologists, etc.).
“The most recent (students) here at the clinic were with me in the operating room, observing -- twice,” Grado said. “One patient was receiving treatment for breast cancer; the other, prostate cancer.
“Even that experience gives (students) a leg up,” Grado continued. “They get to wear the surgical scrub suits. Some of them are seeing blood for the first time in a surgical setting.
“So far, I’ve not had any students faint.”
He understands that there needs to be an adjustment period for young medical professionals-in-training. “While growing up, I personally couldn’t stand the smell of antiseptics,” a condition he obviously had to amend before becoming a doctor, he said.
He also acknowledged that the earlier a problem can be addressed – ideally before a student enters med school – the better. “Instructors there get irritable if they have to spend extra time with students who have issues or trouble handling the environment,” Grado said.
Visiting students also learn how to respond to negative feedback. “Half of our students are kind of shy. We don’t bully them; we’re not trying to be mean to them. We do challenge them, though.
“They also get pushed around. Again, we’re not trying to be mean but we are telling them at the time to ‘get out of the way!’ Time can be of essence when in a health-related setting.”
Grado said he personally spends as much time as possible with the visiting students and, in order to do so, he sometimes needs to “get up a little earlier in the morning and stay a little later at night” so that he can accomplish as his regular work. He strives, however, to give his visitors a complete picture of a real oncology practice.
“I find it a real pleasure as the experience allows me to return some of the favors Eastern provided to me,” he said.
The lucky few who get invited to Scottsdale aren’t the only EIU students to benefit from Grado’s knowledge and experience.
“I fell in love with Skype a long time ago,” Grado said. “A patient was here (at the Scottsdale clinic), but his wife couldn’t come. We were able, however, to discuss his case via Skype, making it possible for her to make sure her husband asked the right questions.”
Skype allows Grado to chat with pre-med students, both individually and as a group, on the EIU campus. It allows them the opportunity to openly discuss issues associated with the field of medicine, including training, med schools, specialties, salaries and even medical malpractice.
“Students are often afraid of asking questions,” Grado said. “I think it helps for them to be able to both hear me and see me, to get to know me as someone they can approach for information and advice.”
He’s advocating for other EIU alumni to join him in his endeavors.
“I’m hoping to start a program involving other Eastern alum in the medical profession,” he said. “EIU grads from all over who have become doctors and nurses… I think a national program to support our students is just what we need.”