What do the summits of Everest and Kilimanjaro, a small cancer clinic in Ghana, and Alaska’s historic 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail all have in common? For most people, they’re remote “bucket list” destinations with a mystique of adventure or danger. For radiation oncologist Dr. Larry Daugherty, they’re all places that have either improved his life, or given him a chance to improve the lives of others.
Imagine a lifestyle with room for your personal and professional passions, all driven by a clear sense of purpose. That’s the experience that Dr. Daugherty has been able to create for himself and his family while managing an oncology practice in Alaska. Dr. Daugherty’s burning desire to heal has carried him on a fascinating path from the world’s most challenging mountaintops, to the heart of the Arctic tundra, to humanitarian outreach that touches lives across continents.
Always be climbing
Rising to the top in the medical profession demands a long, steep climb through years of education and specialized training. For Larry Dougherty, the professional metaphor also happens to be literally true in his off time. He’s been an avid climber for much of his life, scaling peaks in Russia, South America, and Europe. It turned out that a friend in the same year of radiation oncology residency in Philadelphia shared his mountaineering passion and they started planning climbs together.
Dr. Daugherty explains, “When we were climbing away from our clinic, we started to carry Tibetan prayer flags with us. It just started as a gesture to our patients — to bring them a flag that we had taken to the top of a mountain with their name on it.” He and his friend never planned to start a nonprofit around it, but the idea caught on. Before long, others began hearing about the flags and wanted to know how they could dedicate one to someone they knew whose life had been touched by cancer. “I was actually pretty surprised at how meaningful that small gesture was to patients and their families. We thought, how can we do something with this project that’s maybe a bit more meaningful?”
The answer was to start Radiating Hope in 2010, to help improve access to cancer treatment services in developing countries. Supporters can dedicate and follow flags, take part in climbing adventures around the world, and make direct donations toward radiation oncology equipment. Dr. Daugherty talks enthusiastically about the momentum they’ve gained. “We organize mountain climbs several times a year and we will have folks join us, and they raise money by dedicating flags to patients. We also accept donations of used equipment from hospitals and clinics, which is still perfectly good, and we can place that somewhere else in the world.”
If you visit Dr. Daugherty’s blog you can read an inspiring story about his most recent climbing trip to Mt. Everest.
“Everest did not give me what I wanted or what I came for. But I do walk away with what I needed from this experience.”
Although he didn’t summit this time, here’s an insight that fits in beautifully with the rest of his fascinating life story. He’s choosing to focus on what he gained from the 8,750 meters that he did climb (and the years of preparation), rather than what he missed on the 98 meters he did not. Where others might have found disappointment, he found unexpected gifts.
(VIDEO) Dr. Larry Daugherty on his experience with Weatherby Healthcare (2:35)
Giving back in Africa
Dr. Daugherty’s possibility thinking also shows up in his interest in Africa, which has become a special focus area for him, both professionally and philanthropically. Radiating Hope has already placed used equipment in several African nations, but Dr. Daugherty’s connection goes back even further than the nonprofit. “My very first experience in radiation oncology was as a medical student when I received funding to travel to Ghana. I didn’t know it at the time but what I was seeing was actually very primitive radiation oncology services. It was like going back in a time machine to what treatment would have been like here in the United States 50 or 60 years ago.”
The experience made a powerful imprint on Dr. Daugherty. Part of what makes him so passionate about trying to improve access to cancer treatment in Africa is wondering what his kids will think when they’re older, and whether they might ask him what he did to help in a situation where so many people were dying. He says, “In Africa, cancer is one of the leading causes of death. It actually kills more people than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. It’s an enormous issue to bring something advanced like radiation oncology to a place like Africa, but our nonprofit aims to do that. We have an opportunity to do enormous good with very small changes.”
Discovering a whole new world close to home through locum tenens
The idea of locum tenens first came to Dr. Daugherty when he was a resident struggling to make ends meet. A friend suggested that he could make a lot of money doing locums. He replied, “Really? What is locums? I was introduced to this whole world that I didn’t know existed.” He started filling in for local physicians on vacation, then began taking longer assignments in other states. Dr. Daugherty says, “Locum tenens was a positive experience for my family because it took some financial pressure off and created some fond memories. We wanted to go to the outer banks of North Carolina, so we rented a little beach house – it was like a paid vacation and helped me pay off some bills.”
Dr. Daugherty found that his locum tenens experience would pay off in other valuable ways as his career advanced. Most residents train in a large academic center and don’t get a lot of exposure to other ways of doing things.
“Being able to see vastly different ways of practicing medicine helped me significantly. When it came time for me to make a job transition I was armed with a lot more information.”
Dr. Daugherty continues: “I’d seen many different medical records, different technologies in radiation oncology that I wasn’t exposed to as a resident, different ways of running offices, some more efficient than others, and so I kind of knew what I wanted from that experience.
Seeing the clinic, staff, and patient community as a family
Dr. Daugherty now works in Anchorage, Alaska at a multidisciplinary cancer center. His practice includes several surgeons, a primary care physician, a medical oncologist, and a radiology department, but Dr. Daugherty is the only radiation oncologist.
Though he no longer takes locum tenens assignments, he still works with locum tenens agencies. In order to have coverage for his practice while he’s out on his adventures, he hires locum tenens doctors to take his place.
He says, “One of the things that brought me up to Alaska was the opportunity to race in the Iditarod. I take time off to go out mushing, mountain climbing, or fishing with my kids. When I was looking at this job, the ability to take time off worried me because I’m essentially working by myself. It hasn’t been a problem at all being able to have locums as an option to come in and cover for me.”
“My relationship with [my staffing agency] has enabled me to have a predictable and reliable pool of physicians we like, trust and are acquainted with,” he adds. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving and having a new physician all the time who hasn’t worked up here in Alaska before. [Locum tenens] works well for me, my staff, and my administration.”
Describing Alaska as a big state with a small town feel, Dr. Daugherty talks about the connection he feels with his patients. “I’ve interacted more on a social level with my patients here than I have in other areas where I’ve lived. Having a locums physician come in and cover your practice is like having somebody come in and live in your house, so it’s important to me that I have good, quality coverage options, even if it’s just for a week.” Dr. Daugherty now has a trusted pool of locums physicians he can call on that allows him to plan ahead for time off, knowing he’s leaving his clinic, staff, and patients in good hands.
Dr. Daugherty loves his work and says there’s nothing he’d rather do. “There’s never a question when I go home at night whether I made a difference in the world. I always feel like I did.” So far, he’s managed to make a difference in 14 countries, as well as in many communities around the United States — and there’s no telling where the positive ripple effects will go from there.