By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 26, 2013
ATLANTA—Thomas and Ellen Olson for decades have sat beside the sickest youngsters as the husband and wife treat their childhood cancer and other illnesses relying on science.
They draw strength and hope, relying on faith.
The husband and wife are on the team at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, one of the largest pediatric treatment centers in the country.
Cancer in children is a heart-wrenching experience. For Thomas, 61, his faith shapes how he sees his work.
“It’s not about a just God. It’s about how we go through life. That’s what I learned in religion and believe in. That’s what you have to live by,” he said. ‘If you just look on life, why did this happen to somebody, why did this happen to me, blame somebody, then there’s no way you can justify it. But we all have issues and we all have challenges.”
And his faith has deepened and grown “stronger as I’ve gotten into (oncology)” because of the revelation science provides about human life.
“The more I’ve learned science, the more I’ve learned genetics, it’s such a complex thing. It didn’t happen just by chance,” he said.
He is a doctor and medical director of the Aflac Center at Egleston; she is a pediatric nurse practitioner. They met at Loyola University of Chicago Medical Center where he studied medicine and she worked for the first time as a registered nurse. Both grew up Catholic, he in New Jersey, she in Illinois. They are travelers and mountain hikers, with three children. They live in Sandy Springs and worship at All Saints Church in Dunwoody, where she is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. They have lived in the Atlanta area and worked at the Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta since the mid-1980s.
Both are active in national and international professional organizations. Ellen specializes in oncology and bone marrow transplants. Thomas is a physician focused on children’s oncology, professor of pediatrics, and has authored and co-authored six publications.
Their decision to work in the specialty came from its challenge and the patients they encountered.
“I always liked it. It was challenging. Patients were resilient,” said Ellen, 59.
And for him, the work requires teaming with families to deal with cancer.
“You try to cure everybody, but you also have to respect the families, respect the children,” said Thomas. “Dying children were special too, and it requires a certain skill to do that.”
About 12,500 children yearly are diagnosed with cancer. The Aflac Cancer Center sees some 350 new patients a year. About 80 percent of children and young adults with cancer survive.
The Olsons look past the tragedy in the deaths because from the dying may emerge insights and knowledge that lead to a cure.
“I’d like the cure rate to be 100 percent. I’m not really happy with 95 (percent). … That’s five people,” Thomas said.
But, he added, “I never look at it as a failure of my work, but how can we advance to that number? How to make every death count in the future?”
Medicine once considered experimental is now part of the standard care Ellen uses.
“I never give up hope,” she said. “Maybe we weren’t able to help this patient, but perhaps we can help the next patient.”
How do they reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful God with young people with cancer?
“Cancer isn’t the only thing. None of us can go through life without anything—depression, heart disease. Cancer can be cured. There are a lot of things that can’t be cured or helped at all. There’s a lot of suffering in the world,” said Thomas.
Ellen said, “It’s part of life and you have to deal with the difficult bumps in the road that come in life. Science and God give us the faith to work through all those sorts of problems because there are good and bad outcomes. With my faith, it gives me an inner peace.”
The faith these two medical experts carry into the hospital rooms makes them better caregivers, giving them the humility to be listeners for patients’ needs and seeing the dignity of life, even at death, they said.
“I think my faith has helped me be upbeat even at times when people are dying,” said Thomas. “It is still about life and believing in something. I don’t go in sad. That’s my faith that helps with that.”