A Day in the Life

Michael Caligiuri Speaking

Most work days begin the same for Michael Caligiuri, MD.

Annie Thompson, Dr. Caligiuri’s executive assistant, hands him a 3-by-5 note card that contains the day’s schedule. He keeps it tucked away in his shirt pocket and takes it out often to figure out who to call and where to go for his next meeting.

A recent day for the Director of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) began with a call with someone from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) to discuss an upcoming steering committee teleconference. Dr. Caligiuri was installed as president of the AACR on April 3.

Next up was a follow-up meeting and discussion about a new OSUCCC – James facility.

Dr. Caligiuri headed downstairs at 10:30 a.m. to the conference room of the OSUCCC – James to join the already-in-progress, new-employee orientation meeting. Dr. Caligiuri attends these meetings to welcome the newest members of the team and give them a pep talk.

“There are four things that are really important to me and that I want you to think about,” he said.

The first is compassion.

“Imagine that you’re the first person a patient sees when they walk in here,” he said. “They’re from a little town, this is a big place.”

Something as simple as a smile, a “hello” and “how are you today” can make all the difference in the world to a scared and anxious cancer patient. “When you’re walking down the hall, smile and say hello to people,” Dr. Caligiuri said. “Don’t look down at the floor. That’s not helpful. Look at people and smile and say ‘how are you?’ It makes such a difference. I’ll be looking for that from you and you should be looking for that from me.”

Quality is next on Dr. Caligiuri’s list.

“Every day I come here, I ask myself, ‘how can I do a better job?’ and I want you to do that too,” he said, adding every job and every employee is important. “We are the best in the city and state and country and we want to be the best in the world.”

Efficiency is also vital, Dr. Caligiuri said and gave an example.

If everyone works in an efficient manner, and all the patients ready to go home are discharged before noon, “we can take care of 500 more patients in a year,” Dr. Caligiuri said. This is important because patients treated at a comprehensive cancer center “have a 20 percent better survival rate than those treated at a community hospital.”

Research is the fourth item on his list.

When he was in medical school, there were four chemotherapy drugs and virtually everyone diagnosed with cancer died from the disease, Dr. Caligiuri said. “Now there are 15 for just breast cancer. How did we get from four for everyone to 15 for breast cancer? Research. We need to embrace the concept of research. It’s how we move forward and cure cancer.”

Dr. Caligiuri then asked everyone to name the four things he had just discussed. Several people began shouting out compassion, quality, efficiency and research.

“OK, great, you all passed your oral exams,” Dr. Caligiuri joked, a big smile on his face. He then encouraged all these new employees to get involved in Pelotonia, the fundraising bicycle ride that’s raised more than $130 million for cancer research at the OSUCCC – James.

Next, it’s back up to his office for a couple of phone calls. There wasn’t time for lunch, so Dr. Caligiuri grabbed a banana and tangerine. He ate them as he headed over to the Health Sciences Library for an immunology seminar, and proved that it is possible to walk, talk and peel and eat a tangerine all at once.

“Have you ever had cheese and banana together?” he said. “It’s delicious, the salty and sweet go together perfectly.”

Dr. Caligiuri then headed over to the Ross Heart Hospital Auditorium to deliver a talk on “Physician Perspectives on Dying” to a group of internal medicine residents. He didn’t realize this was on his note card/schedule until a few minutes before he arrived, and had to improvise his talk. Then again, he’s been preparing for this talk for 30 years.

“I’ll talk about my journey and how my approach has evolved,” he told the interns.

Dr. Caligiuri then talked about how, back when he was a resident, most doctors were uncomfortable talking to their patients about the possibility of death, and avoided these important conversations. Many physicians still have this problem, but it’s important to learn how to have these conversations with your patients, Dr. Caligiuri said. And, the first step is to sit down in a chair or on the side of the bed and look the patient in the eye. “It’s an amazing difference when you do this, instead of standing back with body language that says, ‘I have to get out of here.’”

Dr. Caligiuri asked who was interested in oncology, and encouraged the five or six residents who raised their hand to come and talk to him. A lot has changed since he became a doctor “and there’s nothing more rewarding than walking into a patient’s room and being able to tell them, ‘I have some really good news for you’ and knowing that this person will have a happy and healthy life.”

From The Ross, it was back to the OSUCCC – James, and Dr. Caligiuri did smile at and say hello to everyone he passed along the way. Some people know who he is, many have no idea. Everyone smiled back and said hello. One of Dr. Caligiuri’s greatest talents is his ability to connect with people.

“Hi Gene,” he said to Gene Parkison, an OSUCCC – James volunteer. They chatted, joked, compared ties (Parkison had on an Ohio State tie) and Dr. Caligiuri thanked Parkison for all he does for the OSUCCC – James patients and their families.

“He’s amazing; I have no idea how he remembers so many people’s names,” Parkison said a few minutes later, after Dr. Caligiuri headed off to yet another meeting. “You can see he really does care and it radiates throughout his persona. Him thanking me for what I do here as a volunteer, well, that’s like a week of pay to me.”

Parkison excused himself. He had to help a blind patient walk over to registration.

At 3:30 p.m., the Caligiuri Lab held its weekly meeting in the Biomedical Research Tower. It was quickly evident that Dr. Caligiuri liked being here, surrounded by his fellow scientists, exchanging thoughts and ideas. He’s a bit of a science nerd.

Ansel Nalin, a graduate student in biomedical sciences, gave the weekly research talk and discussed his work on natural killer cells and their role in the body’s immune response to cancer. Dr. Caligiuri offered a few suggestions, and told Nalin to think about the paper that could come from this promising research.

“Mike has so much experience in the field and is so good at looking at the bigger picture and how what we do in the lab can improve basic therapy,” Nalin said after the meeting. “It’s great to have so many mentors and faculty here helping me.”

Nalin said Dr. Caligiuri often comes to the lab on Saturdays to spend time doing research with his team. “He loves talking to us, talking about science,” Nalin said.

The lab meeting ended at 4:30 p.m. and Dr. Caligiuri spent the next 90 minutes with two of the senior members of his lab, digging deep into the intricacies of the lab’s many research projects. Then it was back to his office for a few more phone calls.

Finally, there are no more items left on his note card. After a busy day, Dr. Caligiuri closed with a moment of gratitude. “I’m fortunate that I love what I’m doing,” he said.

This is the fourth story in a six-part series on Michael A. Caligiuri, MD. The series explores Dr. Caligiuri’s background, career and accomplishments leading up to being named President of the American Association for Cancer Research. Links to the other parts of the series are below.

Part 1: Reaching a Perfect Rating
Part 2: From Buffalo to Columbus
Part 3: Turning Around the OSUCCC – James
Part 5: The Three Pillars of Leadership
Part 6: What's Next – Improving Upon Perfection