Renowned Children's Cancer Expert, Dr. James Nachman, Dies

Fran Lowry

June 23, 2011

June 23, 2011 — World renowned pediatric oncologist James B. Nachman, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago, in Illinois, died June 10 from a suspected heart attack while rafting on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He was 62 years old.

Dr. James Nachman (Courtesy of the University of Chicago)

Dr. Nachman, who chaired several Children's Oncology Group national study committees, was an authority in the medical management of childhood cancers, especially leukemia and lymphoma. He had just coauthored a paper on improving chemotherapy outcomes, which was presented at this year's annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

He was instrumental in developing the treatment regimen known as "augmented postinduction therapy" for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and led the clinical trial, published in 1998, that demonstrated a substantial improvement in survival for patients with ALL who had a slow response to initial therapy.

Through his work, he was able to identify which patients with Hodgkin's lymphoma were at greatest risk for therapy-related second cancers occurring years later; this information was used to adjust the initial therapy for patients at highest risk.

Among Chicago specialists, Dr. Nachman played a key role in the treatment of bone and soft tissue sarcomas. He was the medical oncologist for the University of Chicago's limb-salvage program and helped saved the arms and legs of teens with bone cancer.

An Outstanding Doctor

"Jim was an outstanding clinician, teacher, and clinical researcher," John Cunningham, MD, professor of pediatrics and chief of pediatric oncology at the University of Chicago, said in a statement released by the university.

"He made seminal observations in leukemia and lymphoma that have impacted the lives of many children and adults with these diseases. He was an outstanding doctor, beloved by his patients, their families, and his colleagues. He was an irreplaceable member of our cancer team. We will miss him deeply."

"He was an optimistic, sunny person, and his eyes lit up whenever he was talking about children," his brother Robert told the Chicago Tribune.

"He was an incredible chemotherapist, devising novel therapies for patients who did not respond to standard therapies," said University of Chicago colleague Charles Rubin, MD, in a statement.

"Jim was totally devoted to his work. He spent all of his time taking care of patients, teaching students, residents, and fellows. He always encouraged the patients to live their lives and do everything that other kids do. He helped them by obtaining tickets for ballgames and insisting on them going to school. There was no one quite like him."

A Chicago Boy

Dr. Nachman — affectionately called "Doc Nach" — was born August 28, 1948 and grew up in the South Shore area of Chicago, where he lived until 1963, when his family moved to Highland Park. His father, Adolph Nachman, who survives him, is a retired pediatrician, and Doc Nach wanted to follow in his footsteps.

"I knew I wanted to be a pediatrician since 4 years of age," he said in a 1989 interview. "The life and death challenges of oncology appeal to me. I want to make a difference if I possibly can."

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois in 1970, got his MD from the Johns Hopkins University Medical School in 1974, and did a residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in hematology/oncology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. In 1980, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago as an assistant professor. He was appointed professor of clinical pediatrics in 1999.

Humor, Hope, and Hugs

Dr. Nachman with a patient (Courtesy of the University of Chicago)

As word of his death spread, tributes poured in from the people whose lives he touched.

In the guest book that accompanied Dr. Nachman's obituary notice in the Chicago Tribune, Amanda Tuley, medical technologist in the clinical hematology lab at the University of Chicago Medical Center, wrote that she was devastated to hear the news of his passing. "I first met Nach when he came to the University of Chicago as a chief resident and then worked with him over the next 35 years in pediatric hematology. He was a character. He was either telling us one of his mother's jokes or making us laugh at some other story. He was always in a good mood, always smiling, and had that infectious laugh. His patients love him, his campers love him, and we, his colleagues, love him."

Patrick McShane, the parent of a child treated by Dr. Nachman, wrote: "We first met Dr. Nachman when I took my son Brendan for diagnoses in 2006. Brendan had an advanced stage of osteosarcoma. Jim's care, along with the rest of the staff at the University of Chicago, is the reason Brendan will be graduating from Illinois State University in December 2011. Not only did Dr. Nachman cure him, he along with Dr. Peabody preserved his ability to walk and function normally. Through all this, Dr. Nachman treated Brendan and the entire family with dignity, laughter, love, and hope. I recall one time Brendan received a call from France. It was Dr. Nachman checking up on Brendan's reactions to some of the chemo. Brendan received a partial prosthesis on his birthday. A year later, Jim had Brendan over to his home for a rib dinner (Brendan's favorite), watching Notre Dame football, swimming in the pool, and receiving a complete set of Major League baseball cards from Brendan's birth year. The impact Jim has made in all of our lives, both professionally and as a caring human being, cannot be measured."

Donna Guy, who was Dr. Nachman's secretary, wrote: "Each and every day was an adventure when he was in the office! I enjoyed working for him. He had a passion for life, his craft, his patients, and sports. He was humble, kind, thoughtful, and funny. There would be times when I would be down for whatever reason and he would do or say something that would lift my spirit the entire day. He was loved and his work and memory will live on forever."

Parents Dick and Ellie Goers wrote: "Our son was a patient of Doc's 22 years ago. Doc was the best of the best as an oncologist, constantly pumping up his patients and their families with humor, hope, and hugs, the three Hs of Doc's philosophy. Our son is now 38, a teacher, and the father of soon-to-be four children. You will never know the lives he touched as a pediatric oncologist."

From the Pleiter family: "Dr. Nach wasn't just my son's oncologist, he was a force of nature. He made every family feel like their child was his favorite patient, and you knew he would do absolutely everything on behalf of your child. My son had a challenging case, full of surprises and complications, and we do feel he is alive today thanks to Doc Nach and the team at Comer. He was bold, brash, and flat-out-frank "we're going to poison your body and it won't like it so stuff will go wrong but we'll fix it," but his genuine love for kids and unfailing positivity made us believe healing was always possible. He was a hero to us, and I'm sure to hundreds of kids alive today."

Denice and Mike Heeney wrote: "We first met Dr. Jim Nachman on May 22, 1986 upon our arrival at Wyler's Children's Hospital when our son, Michael, was diagnosed with ALL. "Doc Nach" was so incredibly gifted as a physician and such a remarkable human being in his care of young patients. He could keep a smile on everyone's face through the most difficult procedures and uncertain times. He was truly the "Star" to our family. We stayed in touch with him over the years and would see him at White Sox games. We truly loved Doc Nach and will be forever grateful for his presence in our lives. There were no smiles at our house yesterday when we learned the news of his passing. But we're sure he could have dried our tears with a few of his jokes. Our deepest sympathy to the Nachman family and to the Hematology/Oncology Section at U of C staff members. We will hold Jim Nachman in our hearts forever."

Julie Morse wrote: "Words cannot begin to describe what Doc Nach meant to our family, and especially our son, Greg. Not only was he our doctor, but he remained Greg's friend for the next 20-some years past his cure . . . and mine as well. I know he embraced thousands of families like ours and it was amazing at every level. A greater doctor and a more loving, special man one could not imagine...he was a life force that will forever be remembered and forever be missed by people the world over. His contributions to this world in terms of knowledge and love could fill a hospital — and indeed they did. May his spirit continue in us all. God bless you, Jim. You loved calling your patients "Stars" . . . now it is you who is "the Star" looking down on us all — with your ever-present smile I am sure. With gratitude and love for a life incredibly well lived for so many."

A Giant in the Peds Oncology World

Bill Silberg, from Maplewood, New Jersey, whose son Jake was a patient of Dr. Nachman's, called him a giant figure in the world of pediatric oncology. "Every pediatric oncologist in the world knew him. He was a close friend and mentor of Jake's. Jake got calls from him regularly, asking how he was doing and advising him on education and other choices in life." Dr. Nachman was a wonderful example of "what a doctor can truly be in this era of cynicism and corporate medicine," Mr. Silberg said. "Jim never married and his obits say he 'had no children' but that's not correct. He had hundreds, if not thousands, many of whose lives he saved."

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