It was the chocolate chip cookies.
Nurses brought them to Clemencia Humphreys at night, a “miracle drug” of sorts for how they symbolized the compassion that came with her medical care. Clemencia died from cancer at 25, a bright light extinguished. “There was a presence about her that you couldn’t miss when she smiled,” said Clemencia’s sister, Dr. Kathleen Elliott. “To know her was to love her.”
At the time Elliott was 16, too young to lose a sister but wise enough to heed the meaning of those cookies. Born and raised on St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, she had been thinking about becoming a lawyer. Then she saw the physicians, nurses and other staff caring for her sister. “They treated us like family,” Elliott said. That’s when she heard the call to become a doctor.
Elliott, 45, is an oncologist and hematologist (blood system and related diseases) at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Forsyth in Winston-Salem. Her colleague and supervisor, Dr. Franklin Chen, can speak to her clinical gifts. But it’s another gift, he said, that makes her the extraordinary physician that she is.
“It’s her generosity of heart,” he said. “People feel so cared for when she is with them.”
Every cancer journey is different.
‘This is what I want to do’
The path before Elliott became clear after Clemencia’s death.
She left home on St. Croix to attend Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, on the recommendation of a high school friend. She embraced the Christian school’s focus on body, mind and spirit, and its challenge to students to serve the world. The Michigan weather? She’s had enough snow to last a lifetime, Elliott said.
Certain of her commitment to medicine, she graduated in 2005 from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Loma Linda, California. Her commitment to care for cancer patients didn’t come until her residency at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.
Her rotation through the hematology and leukemia service offered the opportunity to build relationships with patients, many of whom were hospitalized for four to six weeks. She remembers one in particular, a hiker with whom she talked about North Carolina waterfalls. For Elliott’s sister, chocolate chip cookies were a tender part of the journey. For this man, it was a conversation about the great outdoors.
When the man died, his wife told Elliott how much he appreciated their daily talks, not about his illness but about what he loved about life. “It was then,” Elliott said, “that I realized this is what I want to do.”
‘Science and carefulness’
Elliott is part of a team of four physicians treating blood cancers at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Forsyth.
She is the principal investigator on several clinical trials, evaluating new drugs and researching new ways to best use existing drugs. Chen said the work involves “a knowledge of science and carefulness,” qualities he said Elliott brings to this part of her job.
She also performed the first CAR T-cell therapy at Forsyth Medical Center, a leading-edge procedure that uses a patient’s own cells to fight cancer. White blood cells are removed from a patient’s body and engineered in a lab to find and kill cancer cells. They are also multiplied in the lab. Following chemotherapy, the modified CAR T-cells are returned to the body intravenously.
Richard Smith, 55, was the pioneer patient. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system in which white blood cells grow abnormally and can form tumors. On May 15, he became the first person to receive CAR T-cell therapy at Forsyth Medical Center. He has returned home to Linwood, North Carolina, where he is regaining his strength and planning to return to work this summer as a private security officer.
Elliott continues to see Smith regularly, which is just fine with patient and physician.
“I think the world of her,” Smith said.
Elliott concurred: “We make sure we get some laughs in.”
‘Her smile through her journey’
Elliott and her husband, David, who works in property management, are the parents of 17-year-old triplets – Faith, Hope and Ethan. The five of them enjoy playing board games. She uses the drive home from work to decompress, switch gears and, on taco/game night each Friday, psych herself up for victory. Talk about old school, the family’s favorite games are UNO and Monopoly.
Elliott’s world revolves around saving people from cancer. There are wins and there are losses. Always there is the privilege of getting to know the patient beyond the diagnosis. Talking about waterfalls. Walking beside them for as long as she can.
Every day is a challenge. Every day reminds her why she decided to meet that challenge. Every day she thinks of Clemencia.
“Her smile. Her smile through her journey.”
A Distinguished Physician
Dr. Kathleen Elliott received the Novant Health Medical Group Distinguished Physician Award for 2022. Here is some of what Dr. Pam Oliver, now Novant Health’s chief medical officer, wrote about Dr. Elliott: “Dr. Elliott is a brilliant physician in many dimensions. She is diligent about maintaining her knowledge base in the rapidly changing milieu of malignant hematology and cellular therapy. However, what makes her unique is not only her devotion to being a first-class physician but her commitment to being a first-class human being to all those who touch her life and even those who don’t … To be perfectly honest, Dr. Elliott was practicing calm before being calm was cool.”