Going Beyond the Call of Duty: Dr. Edith Peterson Mitchell Receives 2012 ASCO Humanitarian Award
Dr. Mitchell’s volunteer service in medically underprivileged areas has resulted in provision of quality care for those in need
Acts of humanitarianism take countless forms. This year’s ASCO Humanitarian Award recipient, Edith Peterson Mitchell, MD, FACP, believes it is up to the individual to define his or her own personal needs and abilities when assisting others.
"Everyone can determine for themselves where and how they to want contribute," Dr. Mitchell said in an interview with ASCO Daily News. In the context of her own medical background, she said "there is nothing like assisting individuals who have no access to care, who have no opportunities for health."
In addition to Dr. Mitchell’s professional roles—clinical professor in the departments of medicine and medical oncology as well as program leader of Gastrointestinal Oncology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, associate director for Diversity Programs for the Kimmel Cancer Center (KCC) at Jefferson and director of the KCC Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities—she has spent many years in service with the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard.
"There is nothing like assisting individuals who have no access to care, who have no opportunities for health."
— Edith Peterson Mitchell, MD, FACP
Building upon her everyday work in the medical field and expanding it to a larger community, Dr. Mitchell has helped individuals in medically underserved areas to realize that simple changes in lifestyle can have a dramatic effect on cancer care.
She has participated in flood relief, supportive patient advocacy, and organized vaccination clinics—all for those individuals who might not have the means to seek out more conventional medical advice. For these efforts, Dr. Mitchell was presented with this year’s ASCO Humanitarian Award during yesterday’s Opening Session. The award honors an oncologist who personifies ASCO’s mission and values by providing outstanding patient care through innovative means or exceptional service and leadership in voluntary, uncompensated endeavors in the United States or abroad.
Working with Underserved Populations
During the 1993 flood that devastated areas of Mississippi and Missouri, Dr. Mitchell led a team of volunteers to set up microbiology laboratories in key areas so that well water could be tested for harmful bacteria and agents. Dr. Mitchell and her team tested more than 1,000 samples of water throughout Mississippi because the state’s microbiology lab was underwater.
In the city of St. Louis, Dr. Mitchell and her team "worked endlessly" to administer hepatitis vaccines and provide potable water to individuals.
Stemming from these activities, Dr. Mitchell was named State Air Surgeon for Missouri and was put in charge of Air Force volunteers and of setting up guidelines for resources and medical care. She also worked with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services administering immunizations for children to improve immunization rates, as well as performing physical examinations.
She explained that a number of the children she encountered had very little access to medical care and limited resources.
One such patient was a 14-year-old girl who presented to one of the free clinics for an athletic–participation examination with hypertension and was found to have a kidney tumor.
Dr. Mitchell was able to transfer the patient to the University of Missouri, where the surgeon performed the necessary operation free of charge.
"Working with children is really very important—as is working with individuals who are motivated but who are poor and just don’t have resources," she said.
Her work with children in underserved regions served two benefits, explained Dr. Mitchell. First, it gave those in the National Guard who were preparing for deployment for military purposes experience in dealing with physical examinations and illness. Second and "more importantly, it allowed us to give to individuals," she said.
As a result of these efforts, Dr. Mitchell and her team ended up being recognized by the Governor of Missouri.
Other efforts in which Dr. Mitchell provided access to care to underserved populations included her working at a volunteer clinic within a large remote farming population. Consisting mostly of immigrants and farmers, the population was found to have a high rate of sickle cell disease incidence. Patients would then be seen at the University of Missouri for sickle cell care. Because the clinic was located six hours away from her home, Dr. Mitchell would drive the evening before, see patients the next day, and then drive back home in the evening.
"Working with individuals who try to provide medical care to people who don’t have access to care has been a big part of my professional life," she said. "Volunteering for these clinics has been so important because there are so many individuals who want medical care but don’t have access to it, and they are so appreciative for what we can do for them."
"The Biggest Reward"
Dr. Mitchell attributes the biggest reward of her work to seeing individuals benefit from her time—seeing them access top-level medical care that they never would have received without these volunteer efforts.
She is pleased to see that her humanitarian efforts have also inspired her family, who in their own ways have contributed to the community and underserved populations.
Opportunities for outreach and community improvement are available for anyone interested, Dr. Mitchell explained. Her recommendation is simple: find your passion and contribute through that.