Inside Track: It’s all in the mind
West Michigan’s newest brain tumor expert finds relaxation through creative writing.
Dr. Wendy Sherman isn’t one to head for the golf course when off duty. If she’s not out running or walking the dog, she may be working on her latest play, or perhaps watching a rehearsal of one of her plays.
But what Sherman does for a living is far more crucial than her playwriting. A few months ago, she joined Spectrum Health as a member of the new Brain and Spine Tumor Center at the Spectrum Health Medical Group neurosurgery offices at 25 Michigan St. NE on the Medical Mile.
According to Spectrum, it is the first medical center in West Michigan to provide comprehensive, multidisciplinary and highly specialized care for patients with central nervous system tumors, brain metastases and neurological complications of cancer. And Spectrum said Sherman is West Michigan’s only board-certified, fellowship-trained neuro-oncologist.
“The Brain & Spine Tumor Center provides the region’s most advanced and innovative treatment options, including new and emerging therapies and protocols that are otherwise unavailable,” said Dr. Kenneth J. Fawcett, Jr., interim president of SHMG. “In the area of neuro-oncology, a clinical expert of Dr. Sherman’s caliber greatly expands access to highly specialized care for patients with brain and spine tumors.”
WENDY SHERMAN, M.D.
That’s pretty impressive for a 31-year-old in a field where education and residency training goes on for years after other professionals are fully into their careers.
Sherman may have started on her path toward medicine when she was a fourth-grader in Winnetka, Ill. She vividly recalls a special presentation to her class on anatomy. “I really was fascinated with anatomy and how the body works. It sort of grew from that point on.”
Her mother was a special ed teacher and her father an attorney who specialized in medical litigation defense.
“They were proponents of me being whatever I wanted to be and choosing whatever road I wanted to go down. They encouraged me along the way,” she said.
More impetus came in high school, when her class read books by Oliver Sacks, a physician and professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine. His 1985 book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat,” made a profound impression on Sherman. It is a collection of “clinical tales from the far borderlands of neurological and human experience,” according to the Sacks website.
“I was just fascinated by how disease in the brain can manifest itself in some really amazing ways. And also how people who are dealing with different ailments could try to change their life to accommodate their new disability,” said Sherman.
Her first year of college as a pre-med student was at Washington University in St. Louis. Then she transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. However, it did not actually offer a pre-med degree; she was told she could take all the required pre-med classes but had to pick a degree in something else that interested her. That was writing — playwriting in particular, so she ended up with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater studies with a focus in playwriting and a chemistry minor.
While a college student, Sherman wrote a play that was produced in an independent theater. It was about two Alzheimer patients, a man and a woman, who meet in a park. One recognizes the other from when they were young. The two develop a relationship through their conversation, but it’s not until the end that the audience realizes they never knew each other in the past, despite what the disease was making them think.
In 2004, Sherman began med school at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, graduating in 2008. While there, she wrote a play about end-of-life issues, and the dean of the college and a few other faculty members were among the actors.
“It’s surprising how many people in medicine have these varying talents,” she said, “and they often try to use science and medicine as the basis for their material.”
Was Sherman ever inclined to drop med school and make playwriting her full-time career?
“No,” she said. Medicine was “always my plan, my goal. I love playwriting but feel most fulfilled” working in medicine. “I didn’t stray off the path,” she added.
After completing med school, she did an internship in internal medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and then a neurology residency there from July 2009 through June 2012. In her last year, she was chief resident. She then received more training through a one-year fellowship in neuro-oncology at Northwestern.
Since August, she has been medical director of neuro-oncology and co-director of the Brain and Spine Tumor Center, and also a clinical assistant professor at Michigan State University in the department of neurosciences.
With her qualifications, Sherman was definitely not facing a difficult time finding a job. How she wound up in Grand Rapids entails an interesting story involving her husband who “played a role in this,” she said.
About a year and a half ago, she attended a national meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, and her husband, Bartholomew, an attorney, accompanied her. At the conference one day, while she was busy elsewhere, he happened to meet some people from Spectrum Health. He quickly suggested to his wife that she talk to them.
That was how she met Dr. Brien Smith, co-chair of the department of clinical neurosciences and chief of the division of neurology within SHMG.
“It sounded like they were doing some really great things,” she said, a thought that remained in the back of her mind as she completed her training.
Spectrum Health was one of the organizations trying to recruit her, and what Sherman really liked about that prospect “was specifically that it was a chance for me to start a program and design it.”
The other reason had to do with a need she saw in West Michigan.
“I was seeing a lot of patients from this area who were driving down to Chicago to Northwestern (Memorial Hospital) for care” of malignant brain and spinal tumors. She sympathized with those patients and their families having to drive so far and undergoing the expense of a place to stay.
There are many daunting challenges facing doctors in her field. One is simply dealing with all the neurological tumors diagnosed in the U.S. today. When asked why there are so many, Sherman said “part of the answer is a larger, aging population. They are more common the older we get.”
Another explanation has to do with the advances in medical technology. She noted that MRI equipment is much more prevalent now, even in small community hospitals that never had them before, so “we’re picking up on them more.”
“I want there to be a cure for these cancers, these tumors, and there isn’t one yet, for some of them,” adding that research is “a huge part of what I do and what I’m trying to build here.”
Sherman’s clinical and research interests include tumors of the brain such as gliomas and meningiomas, brain metastases, leptomeningeal disease, and epilepsy secondary to brain tumors. Her neuro-oncology fellowship included working with patients involved in clinical trials using novel treatments for primary and metastatic brain tumors.
Sherman works with the new vice president of research at Spectrum, Dr. Sandra Rempel, a brain tumor specialist who was recruited from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Along with Sherman, the Brain & Spine Tumor Center is led by Dr. Todd Vitaz, director of neurosurgical oncology, and Dr. Kiran Taylor, chief of the psychiatry and behavioral medicine division.