A resident of Nocatee, Dr. Eric Sandler is Medical Director of the Neuro-oncology Program and Director of the Vascular Malformation Program at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care and Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville. He is also Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Mayo School of Medicine.
As told to Maggie FitzRoy
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: A typical day for me is usually very busy. It involves taking care of patients in the hospital and the clinic and participating in a variety of research protocols working to improve outcomes for children with cancer.
Q: What types of cases do you have?
A: The majority of children I take care of are children with brain tumors. And the most exciting part of that is how much the outcomes have improved over the course of my career. When I started about 40 to 50% of children with cancer in general were cured. And now it’s over 80%. The other thing is we’re able to make those patients who are cured healthier as adults, without many of the long-term side effects that we used to see.
Q: How about children with brain tumors?
A: For children with brain tumors it’s gone from 30% cured to 70 to 80% now.
Q: How so?
A: Because of the systematic research efforts around the whole country. Due to clinical research protocols designed to improve outcomes. We work in a coordinated team. I meet multiple times a week with the radiotherapy physicians, the neurosurgeons, our psyco-social support team and our nursing staff to provide comprehensive care.
Q: Has medication improved?
A: Yes, there are always new drugs being developed. The newest treatments being developed are based on the knowledge we now have as to what makes a tumor grow. So, we can target treatment to the patient’s tumor.
Q: How common are brain tumors in children?
A: Brain tumors make up 20% of all cancers we see in children. In our hospital, that translates into 25 to 30 new patients a year. In the whole country, there are about 3,000 children with brain tumors.
Q: Where do your patients come from?
A: From Jacksonville and the eight-county region of Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.
Q: What innovative treatments do you have?
A: We have the largest pediatric proton therapy center in the world in Jacksonville. It’s a UF program we partner with. Through it we see 80 to 100 additional children with brain tumors. My favorite program is that through Nemours and Wolfson I have an educational mission every year to Mongolia. We go and teach and work with their physicians to improve the outcomes of children with cancer in Mongolia.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: New York, in a suburb of New York City.
Q: When did you decide to become a doctor?
A: That’s been my goal since I was in my early teens.
Q: When did you decide your specialty?
A: Not until I was in the third year of medical school. I originally thought I would go into geriatrics. But I loved taking care of kids. And in hematology and oncology, there is something new to learn every day. And because patients are treated over a long period of time, you develop relationships with the children and their families. We take care of children with blood disorders as well as cancer disorders.
Q: Where did you go to medical school?
A: University of Vermont. I did my fellowship in Gainesville and met many doctors working in Jacksonville. After my fellowship, I went to Dallas, to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School of Dallas Children’s Hospital. Wolfson invited me to look at a position here, so that is what got me back to Florida. We’ve been here since 1998.
Q: Tell us about your family.
A: My wife, Marcy, is a social worker by training. For the last 10 years, she has worked as a substitute teacher in St. Johns County, and she is involved in a number of community organizations. I have four children, ages 33 to 23. Three are married and I just found out today that I’m finally going to be a grandpop, so that’s exciting.
Q: You personally have an insight as to what parents of children with cancer are going through. Tell us about that.
A: I have a unique empathy, because I was also a parent of a child with leukemia. My daughter, Alyssa, was diagnosed when she was 3 years old. She went through three years of treatment and then at 9 years of age, she had a recurrence of leukemia and was treated for another three years. So, she is also a long-term survivor. She is now 31 and a special ed teacher at Landrum Middle School.
Q: Do you enjoy your work?
A: I love what I do. Just helping children and families get through this and get healthy again. Wolfson and the work we are doing here is an incredible secret in Jacksonville. When parents here have children who are sick, they know they have the right place to get the best care for their children.