Inside Track: A passion for patient care
Metro Health – U-M cancer center director finds calling after secondhand experience with disease.
Laura Smith’s passionate work for cancer patients stems from her own experience with the disease.
Smith began her career without clear intentions; it was almost by chance, she said, that her path has gone where it has.
Once she started work in the field and met patients and their families, she got flashbacks as a little girl tagging along to her mother’s cancer treatment appointments.
Though she said it would not happen today, nurses taped tubing to Smith’s arm and let her sit with her mother as she received chemo. The radiation techs would take Smith to the control room to watch as they activated the laser beams.
After a three-year struggle, Smith’s mother died of breast cancer when Smith was 10 years old.
She said reliving those moments with patients is when her career intentions became clear.
As director of the cancer center for Metro Health – University of Michigan Health, Smith, 35, works to provide cancer patients and their families with “comfort and a sense of home.”
“When I have a bad day at work, I walk through the infusion suite and see what a bad day really looks like,” Smith said.
“Or, I think back to the pain I felt to not have a mom growing up and … fight through whatever seems bad so I can do whatever I can for others to not experience that.”
Smith grew up on a small, 100-year-old family dairy farm in Homer, which her father and his brothers still run today.
They use the food produced to operate the farm and feed their families, and they sell what they don’t need. That is how Smith’s father makes his living. Seeing him milk cows every day at 4:30 a.m. and again at 4:30 p.m., she said she credits him with teaching her a strong work ethic.
Smith was the oldest of three siblings until age 13 when her father remarried, bringing a stepmother and two stepsiblings into her life and, later, a half-sibling.
Now, her siblings call her the second oldest of six but the “first bossiest.”
Smith reminds them the “bossiness” is “leadership abilities” — abilities she seems to have used to propel herself, at age 33, into her current role overseeing cancer center administration and a staff of about 80.
While she said she had a fantastic childhood and loved her hometown and high school class of 52 students, her counselor and teachers pushed her to explore other possibilities.
And the most prominent memories she has of her mother are from her years of sickness, which is partly why she wanted to venture away from her hometown.
“I knew there was more out there but wasn’t really sure how to do it or how to get there,” Smith said.
A self-proclaimed “counterfeit city girl,” her five siblings all live within 10 miles of the farm, and she often visits them and her nine nieces and nephews to run around barefoot and catch fish in the pond.
Smith applied to colleges during high school and was accepted to two.
She came home one day and told her father, “Dad, I’m gonna go to college.”
A first-generation college student, she pursued lots of scholarships and received a bachelor’s in management at Ferris State University, working as a resident adviser for the last three years.
She continued to Eastern Illinois University and received a Master of Technology in training and development, as well as a workforce improvement certification.
Unsure of which career path to follow, Smith was certain about one thing — she wanted to be in the “big city.”
She applied only for jobs based in Chicago until she found one at a health care technology startup company, Accretive Health, training clients in proprietary software.
It just happened this technology company was health care-related, but that piece is what Smith said launched her down the path that brought her where she is.
“I was excited to see you could mirror the business with being able to help someone. It was really that first year in that job where I knew from that point going forward, there was no other option for me,” Smith said.
“It truly felt like you were making a difference every day.”
During her time there, the company was opening a business in India.
“And 24-year-old me thought it was appropriate to make a business proposal as to why I should go to India and help start this company,” Smith said.
After her appointment with the vice president, he looked at her and said, “You leave next Sunday.”
She had no passport, though, so left two weeks later and spent three months in India.
Between that company and the next, Smith spent about seven years based in Chicago, flying each week all over the country to work with clients.
But she never felt connected to anything.
When she saw other employees more involved with patient care, she knew she wanted to move in that direction.
She was looking for the “perfect fit” and applied to a senior management position at Northwest Medicine’s cancer center in Chicago.
She thought it would be a “far-shot” but got the position.
That’s when she saw cancer patients firsthand and knew she had made the right career choice, feeling her passion and career were finally united.
“I have no idea how all of that worked out,” Smith said.
“The only thing I can remember is being ready and willing to step outside my comfort zone and try a new experience every time it was given to me.”
She said most young people, herself included, have no idea what career path they will take, and expecting them to know makes no sense.
“I think sometimes when people have a very clear idea, they’re so focused on that that they miss so many different opportunities that come their way because they might not fit into the box that they had prescribed in their mind,” Smith said.
After a couple years at Northwestern, an executive search firm contacted her about her current position.
“It was a big role, but I function best outside of my comfort zone and when I’m a bit pushed,” she said.
She “fell in love” with the staff and culture and knew she needed to return to Michigan.
“’Smitten with the Mitten’ is more than just a t-shirt,” she said.
She didn’t tell her friends she was taking a new job; she just accepted because she knew it was the right move.
As hard as she worked in Chicago, she said it was difficult to feel she was having an impact.
Now, she said she feels that way.
Smith oversees administrative aspects for the Metro Health medical, surgical and radiational oncology programs and the skin cancer center. She oversees every aspect of cancer patients’ experience at Metro Health, from the time they walk inside until the end of cancer treatment.
Smith said she hopes to grow the cancer center and Metro Health during her tenure. She is helping develop a new thoracic surgery program, as well as better connecting the cancer center and other hospital departments to ease patients’ transitions between them.
Cancer patients are dealing with their “world crumbling around them,” Smith said, and while she regrets their diagnoses, she is confident Metro Health will support their needs.
“I want them to know that our team here will walk beside you the entire time, that we will not let you fall through a crack,” she said.