Thinking Outside the Box: Dr. Pamela Catton

Thinking Outside the Box: Dr. Pamela Catton

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By: Lindsay Caldarone

Compassionate physician, brilliant researcher, and devoted mentor; while entirely accurate, these descriptions do not begin to do justice to Dr. Pamela Catton’s legacy. Her illustrious career, the changes she implemented within the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) and beyond, and even the anecdotes told by colleagues and friends reflect her innovation, intelligence, authenticity, and utmost dedication to her work.

Dr. Pamela Catton completed her medical degree at the University of Ottawa, and her residency at the University of Toronto in 1982. She followed in her father’s footsteps by entering the field of radiation oncology. She worked at Sunnybrook Hospital, followed by Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) in Toronto. In 1999, Dr. Catton became the Director of Medical Education at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (PMCC). In addition to practicing radiation oncology, she held various leadership positions throughout her career including Director of the Breast Cancer Survivorship Program at PMCC, Director of Oncology Education at the University Health Network, and Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Toronto (UofT).

Dr. Catton was committed to education and learning. Dr. Mary Gospodarowicz, the Medical Director of the PMCC, and friend and colleague to Dr. Catton, explains that Dr. Catton believed that “radiation oncology is a multi-professional department; not only physicians, but educators, nurses [and more]… should have the opportunity for academic advancement.” To accomplish this, Dr. Catton and Dr. Gospodarowicz developed and implemented a Bachelor of Science program in Medical Radiation Sciences (MRS), jointly offered by the Department of Radiation Oncology at UofT and The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. This program was the first of its kind and, since its inception in 1999, has trained more than 1,500 radiation therapists. Nicole Harnett, who holds an Assistant Professorship in the UofT Department of Radiation Oncology and whom Dr. Catton hired to develop the curriculum for the MRS program, remembers how Dr. Catton expanded on her vision: “[She believed] that radiation therapy as a profession could and would have an increasingly important role in radiation therapy as a treatment modality… Stemming from [the MRS program] was the vision that there is more that radiation therapists could do.” Dr. Catton and Ms. Harnett took on a province-wide research project on advanced practice in radiation therapy. Through this project, the development of a Master’s program was “imminent… to provide education that people need to perform the role [of radiation therapist]”. Thus, the Master of Health Science in Medical Radiation Science program at UofT was born. As Dr. Gospodarowicz explains, this was a “work of love… that doesn’t get done overnight, and does require leadership and a champion: someone who believes that the opportunity for advancement of all professionals involved in the program is important. Pam was this champion.”

This type of dedication and practical thinking was typical of Dr. Catton. “She couldn’t see something that needed to be fixed and not try to fix it,” says Ms. Harnett. “If she believes in something, it’s not going to not happen–it may change shape or format, but it will happen.” Dr. Catton was brilliantly innovative, but never let her ego cloud her judgment of what was best for her patients, students, or staff. Her loyalty and commitment were not just reserved for those in her professional life, but also applied fiercely to her family and, in particular, her dogs, who go hand-in-hand “as a unit”. “Once you crossed her path, you were on her radar,” explains Ms. Harnett, going on to explain how deeply Dr. Catton cared for everyone in her life. “[She was] a bright light here. A nexus for all kinds of things.”

In true interdisciplinary style, her legacies transcend the realm of formal education at UofT to include an impressive research canon, active involvement within the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and contribution to the establishment of the Canadian Radiation Oncology Foundation, the charitable arm of the Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology. Her legacies also include a never-ending sense of humor, and even a new verb: “to be Pam-ed”. Ms. Harnett explains, “it didn’t matter what you did or how hard you worked, once you gave [your work] to her, you got Pam-ed–she would completely take it apart, build it back up, give it back to you and make you feel like you did the great work.” Like all aspects of her character, “Pam-ing” was evident in her personal and professional life. She constantly found the root of the problem or the lesson to be learned, and shared this in a constructive way.

Perhaps the legacy that best encapsulates the essence of Dr. Catton is ELLICSR: Health, Wellness & Survivorship Centre. ELLICSR (pronounced ‘elixir’) is the product of a $3.7M budget, with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ministry for Research and Innovation. Fueled by Dr. Catton’s inexhaustible creativity, passion, and commitment, ELLICSR provides a physical space for cancer survivors, researchers, and clinicians to collaborate and explore ways to improve the cancer survivorship experience.

Through ELLICSR, patients can escape the clinical environment and focus on what they need in order to improve their personal wellness. ELLICSR provides access to a wide range of services, from community groups and clinicians to yoga classes and cooking demonstrations. They also hold an annual National Cancer Survivors Day event to celebrate cancer survivors as well as the efforts put forth by all staff and healthcare providers. The ELLICSR website explains, “ELLICSR is where the non-medical side of cancer treatment happens”. Dr. David Wiljer, who holds the position as Director of Knowledge Management and Innovation in the Radiation Medicine Program at PMH and the University Health Network, worked closely with Dr. Catton throughout the development and implementation of ELLICSR. He explains that “her spirit lives on tremendously” in the Centre: from the design of the building (Dr. Catton had an “impeccable aesthetic” and would “intentionally wear the colors she wanted the architect to include in the palette” during meetings with the design team), to the energy of the team (“we all always ask, what would Pam do?”).

ELLICSR focuses on patient-centered health, beyond medical services. Dr. Wiljer writes, “[ELLICSR] was fundamentally designed to co-create new ideas and new knowledge with the patients and the survivors themselves.”1 This is not a typical research project, but rather a novel paradigm for cancer education. The research team at ELLICSR aims to improve the health of cancer survivors by assessing long-term effects of cancer on survivors and their families, enhancing the survivor experience, and empowering survivors by promoting self-care strategies and enhancing patient-physician interactions. The program has provided invaluable information about the cancer survivor experience. ELLICSR at PMH was the first program of its kind, and has since been replicated globally.

As Dr. Wiljer describes, “Dr. Catton… rather than merely accepting a definition that fits in a box, chose to redefine and reimagine cancer education and constantly recreated its parameters to meet the evolving challenges of the field…”1 ELLICSR interwove her creativity, her dedication to her patients, her focus on learning and teaching (which “were virtually indistinguishable” for Dr. Catton1), her passion for doing the right thing, and her one-of-a-kind spirit. “The Pam that was the mentor, teacher, disciplinarian, and researcher was the same person,” says Ms. Harnett, “you always knew what you were getting.” Although Dr. Catton passed away in December 2014, her contributions to cancer research, patient lives, and the education of students, colleagues, and friends remain tangible within the UofT and IMS community. As Dr. Wiljer points out, “most importantly, she always insisted on having fun with whatever challenge she took on and showed others how to find the joy too.”1

  1. Wiljer D. The Competencies of a Cancer Educator: Redefining the Future. J Canc Educ (2015) 30:190–192.