July 07, 2011
By C.J. Janovy
|Having grown up in rural Kansas, Barbara Lukert, MD, understands its advantages.|
When Barbara Lukert was six years old, her mother's appendix ruptured. The family lived on a farm near Sabetha, Kansas — thirty miles from their doctor.
"This was before penicillin," Lukert remembers. Sulfa drugs had just come out, but they were toxic and primitive. "They were just injected into the wound," Lukert recalls.
Lukert's mother survived, but she spent six weeks in a hospital and six months at home on bed rest. Young Barbara worried constantly — except for once a week, when her mother's doctor made the thirty-mile trip from Horton.
"He would visit every Saturday night," Lukert remembers. "It was always so comforting when he came. I thought it would be really great to make people feel comforted that way."
Five decades after earning her medical degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine, Lukert has done more than comfort people. She has been a profound influence on subsequent generations of medical students who have gone on to comfort their own patients.
Lukert became a practicing physician in 1965 and joined the KU Medical Center faculty as an instructor in the Department of Medicine. Now, as the KU School of Medicine expands with the opening of its Salina campus this year, Lukert has earned some special recognition.
The school has established a new academic society named in her honor. Until now, the school had seven academic societies — organizations established in 1999 to promote a sense of community among students, to enhance interaction between students and faculty, and to help students develop professional attitudes and behaviors. The societies are named after legendary KUMC physicians: Mahlon G. Delp; Ralph H. Major; Franklin D. Murphy; Thomas G. Orr; Harry R. Wahl; W. Clarke Wescoe; and, in Wichita, Thor Jager. With the need for a new society in Salina came an opportunity for a living namesake, and a woman.
"KU through and through"
Lukert is the perfect choice, says William Cathcart-Rake, MD, director of the Salina campus. "She's KU through and through," he says. "She is an excellent mentor to students and residents and fellows, she's been involved in some very good research and is very well-published, and she is just a kind, caring individual. Dr. Lukert embodies everything you want in a physician, and everything that is right with Kansas."
Lukert earned her bachelor's degree from KU in 1956, having taken prerequisites for medical school but majoring in political science. "I heard you had to have a lot of pull to get into medical school," she says. "I took the Foreign Service exam the same month as I took the MCAT."
Admitted to medical school, Lukert found herself in a class with just four other women. "It was quite different from today," she says. "But I didn't ever feel discriminated against because my fellow classmates were so supportive."
Lukert graduated in 1960, and did a rotating internship at St. Luke's Hospital, where Mark Dodge, MD, inspired her to pursue endocrinology. She returned to KU for her residency and an endocrine fellowship with Robert E. Bolinger, MD, founder and director of the Clinical Research Center and a director of the Endocrine and Metabolism Division of the Department of Medicine. Lukert describes her mentor Bolinger, who was fluent in five languages, as "a true renaissance man — he wrote symphonies, sailed and played the French horn."
Lukert also trained for two weeks at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital laboratory of Solomon Berson and Rosalyn Yalow, renowned inventors of the radioimmunoassay. Yalow would go on to win a Nobel Prize for inventing this method of measuring extremely small quantities of hormones in blood (Berson had died by then, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously).
"At the time, I just thought I was learning another technique — I wasn't so impressed," Lukert remembers of her short but intense two weeks in Berson and Yalow's lab. "But as time went on and I understood more fully what a huge difference the development of these techniques made in the practice of endocrinology, it ended up being a major influence." At KU, Lukert says, "I became medical director of the metabolic laboratory as a result of what I learned from Berson and Yalow."
After her residency and fellowship, Lukert spent six years in private practice with two other KU School of Medicine graduates, William Sirridge, MD, and Marjorie Sirridge, MD. The Sirridges would go on to become distinguished physicians and educators as well; they were among the founding faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.
Lukert enjoyed private practice but missed teaching. Before she could return to academia, however, Lukert needed to learn more laboratory research techniques. She completed another fellowship, this one at the Manchester Royal Infirmary in England, where she worked on vitamin D and bone metabolism, which would become the focus of her research.
She returned to KUMC in 1971 and, as Lukert puts it with characteristic humility, "did research and patient care."
A living role model
In fact, Lukert is "an accomplished researcher, scholar and leader within her field and elsewhere," says Mark Meyer, MD, associate dean for student affairs, who led the effort to find a namesake for the Salina society. "We went through an exhaustive review of former graduates," Meyer says. "We wanted a living representative of the values embodied in the academic societies, which are professionalism, mentoring and service. And while there were many outstanding possibilities, Dr. Lukert was an obvious choice."
She has been a lead or co-author on 96 full-length manuscripts and written 11 books or book chapters. She served as president of the Wyandotte County Medical Society. She was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honor society. She has won the Department of Medicine's Distinguished Service Award, the Chancellor's Teaching Award and the American College of Physicians' Laureate Award, among many others.
Her mentees — she calls them her "pride and joys" — span the country and the decades.
One of her earliest mentees was John S. Adams, MD, who met Lukert in 1973, during his final year of medical school at KU. Described by Lukert as "an outstanding researcher in vitamin D metabolism," Adams is now at UCLA, where he is Director of the Orthopedic Hospital Research Center, Vice Chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, and an appointed professor in the departments of Medicine and Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology.
"She imbued in me an excitement for science and an inquisitiveness about challenging dogma that has sustained itself in myself throughout my scientific career," says Adams.
"She's not one of these individuals who invests time in somebody and when they're gone they're gone," he notes. "She's been extraordinarily close to me over the years and encouraged me in my career, which I think is unusual for most mentors and mentees." They still see each other a couple of times a year at scientific meetings. "We have a deal that whenever we're at a meeting together, it's her responsibility to buy me food. She's still the mentor in that regard!"
A more recent mentee is Leigh Eck, MD, who began working with Lukert as a fellow in 2006 and is now an assistant professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology in the Department of Internal Medicine at KUMC. "Instead of solving problems for you, she provides the tools to solve problems yourself," says Eck, who was impressed by how quickly Lukert responded to her questions and concerns despite how busy Lukert was at the time.
"She is somebody who is always going to do the right thing, and she expects those around her to make the right choices," Eck says. "By her example, she sets a role model of doing the right thing in all aspects of her career. You want to model your own behavior after her."
Over the years, Lukert has witnessed profound changes in medical education: the world-changing emergence of the Internet, which eliminated painstaking searches through the Index Medicus and trips to the library stacks; and technological advances such as functional MRI, which led to major advances in understanding metabolic changes in the brain.
The fundamentals of what it takes to be a good physician haven't changed, though, and Lukert has much wisdom to share with the Salina's incoming class.
Advice for students
"To practice family medicine in rural Kansas requires the most intelligent and the most dedicated people in medicine, because you have to have such a breadth of knowledge," she says. "The main thing is to never, never hesitate to consult other people, whether that's just because you feel unsure or the patient requests it. You can never lose anything by getting another opinion, another set of eyes."
Cathcart-Rake hopes she will visit the Salina campus at least once a year. "The previous society namesakes are all considered wonderful mentors, but most of them died before the societies were even established," he says (Wescoe died in 2004). "They weren't able to personally interact with the societies for which they were named. This will be a first."
As she considers her role as a living namesake, Lukert has three pieces of advice for the incoming members of the Barbara P. Lukert Academic Society.
First, she says, "See as many patients as you can possibly see. We know you're much more likely to recognize diseases and disorders if you've seen a case. The more patients you see, the better equipped you are to make diagnoses in the future."
Second: "Always keep the patient as the main thing. With all of our technology, it's easy to forget that this is a person who is going through cares, worries, pain. You always have to keep the welfare of the patient as a central point of the practice of medicine."
Third: "Always get to know people as people, not just as patients. Try to know something about what their occupation is, their families, what makes them tick. We get so focused sometimes on their illness, we think of that being the primary thing to address."
Practicing in rural Kansas is a wonderful experience, she says. "There's so much more sense of community. One of the good things about practicing medicine in the rural setting is you see all of your patients on a weekly basis." At the same time, she says, "One of the bad things about practicing in a rural setting is you see them on a weekly basis! You see people at school functions, at church, shopping in the grocery store, so if they are having difficulty you're constantly reminded of it. If you're going to develop the kind of relationship with people that you should, you're going to be pretty devastated when a patient doesn't do well, or you lose a patient. But it's only by investing in relationships that you can really live life to its fullest."