When the day eventually comes that Sheila Moore, MD, retires from treating children in Louisiana with cancer and blood disorders, she’ll leave a field in which children’s futures are exponentially brighter than when she started practicing nearly 50 years ago.
In those days, only one in 10 children diagnosed with cancer survived. Intent on improving those odds — and the young lives affected — Dr. Moore devoted her entire career to treating children in Baton Rouge.
During her career, cancer treatment for children has completely turned around.
Today, nine in 10 children survive the disease. No organization has done more than St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Families from all over the world travel there for state-of-the-art care. Treatment, however, often requires daily or weekly clinic visits that extend for many months at a time.
Twenty years ago this summer, Dr. Moore made getting the best care easier for Louisiana families. She established St. Jude Baton Rouge Affiliate Clinic at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health, a satellite clinic where patients receive St. Jude’s unmatched protocols but much closer to home.
“Sheila made it much easier for Louisiana children to receive the very best cancer and hematology care closer to home,” said Ronaldo Funes, MD, a retired pediatrician who worked with Dr. Moore since her days as a medical resident. “By aligning herself with St. Jude and establishing the clinic, she fundamentally improved the level of care available in Louisiana.”
She graduated from LSU in 1960 with a double major in chemistry and zoology, then applied to medical school in New Orleans. This was at a time that there were not many female doctors. In fact, at the end of her medical school interview she was asked, “Do you realize that you’re taking a slot away from a man?”
Dr. Moore excelled, becoming one of 10 women in a class of 110 students, and one of the few from that class still practicing medicine today.
During her residency at Earl K. Long Medical Center in North Baton Rouge, she began seeing some very sick patients who had nowhere else to go. As she started her teaching job, she opened up a clinic for hematology and oncology as a way to care for these patients and to teach medical residents.
Dr. Moore’s interest also grew in palliative care, focusing on comfort for those with serious illnesses and typically at the end of life. Before palliative care became the official discipline it is today, Dr. Moore made house calls to help her patients and their families find peace and dignity in life’s final stages.
“In my life as a doctor, one of the most important lessons I learned was that I may not be able to cure everyone, but I can make death better,” she said. “So if I couldn’t make you well, I could certainly try to keep you from hurting.”
Dr. Moore became acquainted with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. She began referring patients there, and started attending yearly conferences with other referring physicians across the country. This relationship developed throughout the years, and in the early ʻ90s she was asked about opening an affiliate clinic in Baton Rouge.
She agreed. She chose to set up the clinic at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health, which had shown the greatest interest in pediatric medicine among local hospitals. In 1998, with a bare-bones staff, St. Jude Baton Rouge Affiliate Clinic opened its doors.
Today, the clinic has 23 team members — including four physicians, two physician assistants, one pediatric nurse practitioner, eight nurses, a child life specialist, and a supporting team dedicated to caring for patients. The clinic is on the third floor of the Medical Plaza, and has had to expand to accommodate more patients. There were more than 2,300 appointments to the affiliate clinic last year alone.
Today, Jeff Deyo, MD, serves as medical director of the St. Jude Baton Rouge Affiliate Clinic.
“It was really a dream job for me to join the St. Jude family and benefit from Dr. Moore’s experience as I was getting started in my career,” Deyo said. “Dr. Moore gave me a lot of practical wisdom in caring for patients, and she trained me to value the patient’s social context much more highly. Her success is rooted in her desire to do whatever is necessary to provide the best care for the patient.”
Carolyn Russo, MD, medical director of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital's affiliate program in Memphis, has also worked closely with Dr. Moore during her career.
“She’s a force,” Dr. Russo explained. “She’s a courageous, confident woman, a wonderful teacher, someone who is incredibly dedicated to her patients and to providing great patient care. She really fights for the underdog. She has seen medicine for a very long time and attended medical school at a time when there were very few women, and nothing has deterred her from pursuing her dream.”
The St. Jude Baton Rouge Affiliate Clinic is one of only eight St. Jude affiliates in the country and one of the largest. Today, many treatments developed as clinical trials at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are available to Louisiana children close to home.
“I love that we can bring the world-class expertise and treatment protocols of St. Jude to our patients here in South Louisiana,” said Dr. Deyo. “The option of being treated here where your family, church, friends, and support systems are located means the world to patients and their families in a time of crisis.”
This has all been made possible by Dr. Moore and her dedication to practice pediatric hematology and oncology in Baton Rouge throughout her career.
As she celebrates the 20th anniversary of the clinic, she also looks ahead to the opening of the new, freestanding Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, where all inpatient and outpatient hematology and oncology services will be housed on the same floor — a unique model for this type of care. She also looks forward to retiring in a few years, knowing that her lifetime of work will continue to make a difference in the lives of children and their families.
“I think my biggest legacy is that patients don’t have to travel every week or stay longer in Memphis and be away from home,” she said. “And I think it is wonderful for us to have this close relationship, because we must continue to do the best for the children we serve.”
Dr. Moore has touched many lives in her 50-plus years in medicine, not only of patients and their families, but also colleagues and those she has mentored and trained along the way.
“She is truly the heart of St. Jude,” said Dr. Deyo. “From humble beginnings at Earl K. Long, she dedicated herself to caring for children with very few treatment options at that time. And now she can look back over a career that has seen the establishment and growth of one of the largest St. Jude Affiliate clinics in the nation, with a robust clinical staff providing the full spectrum of pediatric hematology and oncology care. Anyone would be proud to have such a legacy. I'm glad it's Sheila Moore. She is an inspiration to us all.”
Brooklyn Ray is a healthy 23-year old woman, but her story could have been different had it not been for St. Jude and the affiliate clinic in Baton Rouge led by Dr. Moore back in its early days nearly 20 years ago.
In 2001 and at only 5 years old, Brooklyn was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
She and her mom traveled to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis the evening of her diagnosis and stayed there for several months. Fortunately for their family, the St. Jude Baton Rouge Affiliate Clinic had opened a few years prior in 1998. Brooklyn was able to return home and begin treatment there.
For two-and-a-half years, Brooklyn received treatment in both Baton Rouge and Memphis, until she was finally cancer free at age 8. She has had no signs of cancer since.
Brooklyn has kept in touch with Dr. Moore throughout the years, including hand delivering an invitation to her high school graduation to the clinic in 2013. But five years passed since the two saw each other prior to a meeting coordinated for this story.
“Seeing Dr. Moore today was so exciting, and my heart was racing,” said Brooklyn. “She was always so kind-hearted, and she made me feel like I was going to pull through it.”
Brooklyn’s future is bright. She no longer has regular appointments at St. Jude, though she has agreed to be part of a research study to help other kids with cancer. She travels to Memphis every 5 years to participate.
This experience also inspired Brooklyn to become a nurse. She is currently taking her pre-requisite courses at Baton Rouge Community College and plans to apply to nursing school when those are complete. While she is not sure exactly what kind of nurse she will become, she would love to work with pediatric cancer patients.
Brooklyn’s battle with cancer had a happy ending, and she has used the lessons she learned during treatment to lead a positive, happy life.
“Going through something like that gives you hope,” she said. “It’s like, if you can overcome something like cancer, you can overcome anything that comes your way.”