By Becky St. Clair
From the very early years of her childhood, Holly Lindsay knew she wanted to be a doctor.
“I have no idea why I was so sure that’s what I wanted,” she says, thinking back. “I had no chronic health problems, so I wasn’t going to the doctor a lot, and neither of my parents were doctors. But I knew. I just knew.”
Today Holly spends a majority of her time doing research in a lab at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, also doing clinical care in pediatric oncology, specifically dealing with brain tumors in children. In addition, Holly is an assistant professor through Baylor College of Medicine.
“I was drawn to the field of pediatrics in particular because the diseases are so pathophysiological,” she explains. “That is, the kids don’t do anything to cause the problem, something just goes wrong in their bodies.”
Holly’s passions for serving not just the patient but the entire family, as well as for dealing with a variety of situations—inpatient, clinical, very ill, mostly well—led her into oncology. When she shadowed in a pediatric oncology clinic in her first year of medical school, she knew she’d found her calling.
“The amount of hope I encounter on this job is surprising,” says Holly. “I was expecting my field to be constantly emotionally draining, but even in the setting of recurrences and patient death, the hope and strength of the families has surprised and inspired me immensely. This is most definitely the work I wanted and needed to do.”
Holly’s experience at PUC prepared her for medical school in two notable ways.
“First and foremost, it strengthened my Christianity,” says Holly. “I rely heavily on my faith, especially with all the loss I experience in my field.”
Additionally, the smaller class sizes at PUC allowed her to interact closely with her professors, and the one-on-one experience helped her feel comfortable asking questions of her med school professors.
“At bigger schools, you ask other students or your TAs,” she says. “PUC helped me be proactive in my learning.”
Holly works in a lab focused on treating and eliminating pediatric brain tumors. She and other researchers do drug testing, with the end goal of eventually bringing the drugs to clinical trial for kids. One day a week she sees her patients in the clinic.
“Make no mistake: I’m certainly one of those people who get upset over animal experimentation, and I was extremely nervous coming into the world of animal research,” she admits. “But the mice here in our lab get amazing care. The experiments are incredibly humane and if there are any signs of distress they are euthanized immediately. On the flip side, I see the suffering children who need these drugs. The mice are serving a wonderful role to help us bring drugs safely to children.”
Most drug companies have developed products that don’t get into the brain through the bloodstream. This is because the possible side effects there are, to say the least, undesirable and risky. But in order to fight brain tumors, certain drugs are needed in the brain. This is why Holly and her fellow researchers implant tumors in the mice in the same place in the brain where the kids are getting them, as opposed to inserting the tumor into the animal’s leg or other body part. This allows for more accurate testing and experimentation.
Just as much as the other aspects of her work, Holly very much enjoys teaching medical students.
“Teaching allows me, specifically, to preemptively correct things I see wrong with communication in the medical field,” she says. “I give a lecture on the delivery of bad news. For this class, I made a video where I interviewed families and asked them to share what doesn’t go well in medical communication. I very much enjoy finding the next generation of medical providers committed to the patients and families they serve.”
Mentoring is a role to which Holly commits herself just as much as she does to her patients, research, and teaching. She actively engages with her students outside of class, inviting them out for small group get-togethers, working hard to avoid stifling her mentorship in the context of work by interacting in a less formal, social environment.
“In my own life, I have appreciated mentors who don’t hesitate to talk about their mistakes,” she says. “So, when I talk to my students, I highlight my own mistakes and talk about the things I wish I had done better, in an attempt to have them avoid those same errors. I want them to know it’s possible to fail at something and still move forward.”
As most of us know, the medical field isn’t all joy, success, and fulfillment. Death follows most medical practitioners in some way or another, and pediatric oncology is not exempt. The death of children can be particularly painful and difficult, and Holly understands this all too well.
“Everyone deals with the loss of patients differently,” she says. “I find it helpful to go to my patients’ funerals. It’s a good way to show the parents how much our team cares about their children.”
Her experience in the medical field has also given Holly the opportunity to explore her faith from a different perspective.
“One of the things I find most challenging is when I hear people praying for healing,” she admits. “I see so many families deserving of healing and it’s just not always granted. My biggest struggle in this field has been coming to terms with the fact that I don’t have understanding of who is granted cure and who is not. It’s taught me to change the way I pray from ‘please do this specific thing’ to ‘please let me accept your plan for me and to be appreciative even in agony.’ Even in a setting I would do anything to change.”
Holly’s long-term goal is to have her research lead to a clinical trial. Although she is currently writing a clinical trial, she realizes having her work directly impact her patients is still a long time out.
“This is probably a 20-year goal at this point, but I’m slowly transitioning from lab to clinical research,” she says. “The particular tumor I work with sees only about a 30 percent survival rate five years from diagnosis. I really hope to bring that number up over the course of my career.”
In her free time—which she swears she has, despite her long list of responsibilities—Holly enjoys traveling. Most recently she visited Costa Rica. She also volunteers at the Houston Zoo as an animal handler, bringing snakes, armadillos, and other wondrous creatures out into the open to show them to children.
“Despite all the naysayers I heard during medical school saying that this field is ‘too depressing,’ my work is very rewarding, with an immense amount of room for growth,” Holly says. “I encourage anyone considering oncology or any aspect of medicine as a career to have an inquisitive mind and push themselves into opportunities to learn.”
She also encourages science majors to expose themselves to fields outside of science.
“It makes you a much more well-rounded and accessible physician,” she says. “Being able to connect with people is incredibly important in any field, and I have found it crucial in my line of work. Don’t underestimate the power of relationships to serve you well in all aspects of life.”