Inspiring Decades of Radiation Oncologists: Ida Ackerman

THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM THE 2016-2017 ANNUAL REPORT.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

- Maya Angelou

And this is why people remember Dr. Ida Ackerman.

After a 33-year career filled with stories of inspiration and empowerment, Ida retired from her positions as an Associate Professor with the Department of Radiation Oncology and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Toronto, and her role as a gynecology radiation oncologist at the Odette Cancer Centre. 

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Ida had early aspirations of pursuing medicine. “I remember I wanted to be a doctor when I was three years old,” she said. “I was born with scoliosis and had a pediatrician whom I loved. I also remember being in awe of the offices of my orthopedic surgeons. High ceilings, floor to ceil-ing bookshelves and Persian rugs. Maybe for my three-year old mind, that inspired me to go into medicine.”
For her undergraduate degree and medical school, Ida joined U of T. “I was an average student in class,” she recalled. “But I excelled in the hospital environment interacting with patients. I realized that I have the ability to communicate with patients and with staff, and to understand their needs.”

During her residency in Internal Medicine, Ida did a rotation at the Princess Margaret Hospital. She was introduced to other trainees, many of whom went on to become leaders in their fields, including Dr. Ian Tannock and Dr. Brian O’Sullivan. During her radiation oncology training, she was mentored by Dr. Alon Dembo and Dr. Denny Depetrillo and Dr. Gillian Thomas, who inspired her to specialize in gynecologic oncology. 

UTDRO has had an indirect influence on Ida’s career since before she joined the Department. Professor Emeritus Dr. Gillian Thomas first suggested that Ida should switch to radiation oncology. During her radia-tion oncology residency, Ida trained with Professor Dr. Brian O’Sullivan. Later, Ida found a colleague and friend in Dr. Pam Catton, who championed many of UTDRO’s education programs.

After her residency, Ida did a fellowship in gynecologic oncology and then joined the Odette Cancer Centre as staff in 1984. She has treated many patients with lung, breast and skin cancers over the decades, but her area of passion is gynecologic malignancies. In the 1990s, Ida published her research in endometrial cancer questioning the role of adjuvant radiation treatment for this cancer. This paper unsettled the community, and launched a series of further studies to re-evaluate the role of radiation for uterine cancers. 

Ida’s practical attitude has made her a strong clinician. Her peers recognize that she brings a different per-spective and practicality to cases that others often forget. “Most of medicine is just plain common sense, and that practical common sense, not knowledge, is what I contribute,” she said.

Amongst her peers, Ida is known as a master educator. With decades of teaching and mentorship under her belt, Ida’s most significant contributions are to those who she has inspired, encouraged and taught. “I love teaching,” she shared. “When I teach, I also learn. I try to create an environment where the students and trainees can question me. I find that when they challenge me, I rethink what I am doing, why I am doing it. The student teaching the teacher is an amazing thing, as long as you are open to it.”

Dr. Adam Gladwish is an alumnus of UTDRO’s Residency and Fellowship programs. “Ida’s ability to trans-late her wealth of experience into pertinent teaching sessions and practical advice was unparalleled,” he recalls. “I am grateful to have had the fortune of training under her guidance and am undoubtedly a better physician for it. I am hopeful at least a fraction of her effectiveness as an educator was imparted upon me so that I can carry it forward to future trainees.”

During her career, Ida has seen many technologies, including CT scans and MRI, develop and become standard in the clinical setting.  She notes that with the proliferation of technology in the clinic, physicians have started relying more and more on the technology: “The digitization of information has been one of the best changes during my career. We are able to assess the patient better, treat the disease better. However, we need to balance technology with the human. We need to sit down and talk to the patient and understand the patient. Yes, the technology is faster, but that human connection is very important. And we need to use clinical judgement to supplement technology because imaging may not always tell the whole story.”

When I teach, I also learn. I try to create an environment where the students and trainees can question me. I find that when they challenge me, I rethink what I am doing, why I am doing it. The student teaching the teacher is an amazing thing, as long as you are open to it.

Ida has been mentoring and teaching UTDRO students since the Department’s inception in 1991. She has seen the Department grow its faculty and academic programs. “As the recent external review noted, the Residency program truly is the jewel in the crown of UTDRO,” she said. “Also, the breadth and the depth of the faculty is another highlight of the department. There is amazing potential here; we just need to harness it more.”

In addition to her roles at UTDRO and the Odette Cancer Centre, Ida also served as the President of the Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology (CARO) from 1997 to 1999. Following a temporary shutdown of radiation therapy services due to waitlist problems in Ontario, Ida inherited a tense environment at CA-RO. She called for a retreat to map out a time management study to help identify workload standards. From that retreat, guidelines for wait times for radiation therapy were developed and eventually adopted by the provincial cancer agencies.  

After retiring, Ida will continue her mentorship role at UTDRO, as a “Wellness Ambassador” for postgradu-ate trainees. “I want to make sure that the trainees today feel the same way I did about my training many years ago. I want them to love it and to have a good time. Because if they are having a good time, they will want to do good work.”

Ida’s impact on the radiation medicine field reaches far and wide globally. With a focus on educating the next generation of radiation oncologists, Ida has mentees in all corners of the world. “Clinical care is about today. Teaching and research are about tomorrow. And I have tried to balance all three. I have tried to contribute to today and tomorrow in my own way.”

IMAGE CREDIT: HORST HERGET PHOTOGRAPHY

 

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