A Desire to Help
Since P.J. Lukac’s glioblastoma diagnosis, the young pediatrician has worked hard to spread awareness and understanding of the disease.
By Stephen Ornes
P.J. Lukac and his wife, Sarah Adams, stand on the Franklin Street Bridge that crosses the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. | Photo by Ken Carl
Children can be many things. Joyful, energetic and exasperating. Curious, playful and sad. For P.J. Lukac, who is finishing his pediatrics residency at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, children are also a source of inspiration and hope.
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“They’re a joy to work with, and they make me laugh,” says the 30-year-old pediatrician of the children under his care. “Even when they’re sick, they can put a smile on your face.”
Now that his residency is nearly over, Lukac says he plans to work as a pediatric hospitalist—a doctor who treats children and babies in a variety of hospital settings, from the emergency room to the intensive care unit.
“I like seeing them get better in the hospital, and I like sending them home,” he says.
It’s not only his fondness for children that caused Lukac to specialize in pediatrics. He also has firsthand experience of a serious illness that led him to want to work with families. In winter 2008, during his second year in medical school, Lukac, then 24, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called glioblastoma, a brain cancer that is notoriously difficult to treat. The five-year survival rate is less than 10 percent, and despite recent treatment advances, the median survival for adults diagnosed with glioblastoma is about 15 months. Like many patients, Lukac found his life with cancer had taken on a new and different meaning.
Pediatrician and brain cancer survivor P.J. Lukac wants to help others. | Photo by Ken Carl
“When you come close to dying at a young age, that really opens your eyes,” he says. “I was really rejuvenated. Medicine is a field where you can channel those feelings and do your best to help other people in the same situation.”
Lukac’s wife, Sarah Adams, adds that, despite the difficulties her husband faced throughout his diagnosis and treatment, “he identifies it as a pivotal moment that changed his entire life, and he likes the person who he became after the diagnosis more than who he was before.” Adams also is a doctor and is about halfway through her dermatology residency.
A Horrible Day
In fall 2008, Lukac had just begun his second year of medical school at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City when he began to experience symptoms that, at first, he dismissed as signs of stress. He woke up with occasional morning headaches and became depressed as the semester wore on. He sometimes found himself searching for words. Every few days, he felt anxious when a tune got stuck in his head that he couldn’t shake. “I felt like I was going crazy,” he says.