Robert Lisac ’12 graduates this week from the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, completing his journey from cancer patient to cancer doctor.
“Say your goodbyes. He’s not going to be here with us in the morning,” the doctor said.
Fourteen-year-old Robert Lisac lay in the ICU on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma, his family gathered at his bedside. His leukemia, diagnosed two years earlier and followed by 18 months of chemotherapy, was back with a vengeance.
His body was rejecting a bone marrow transplant from his older brother. His lungs were filling with blood. Doctors gave him only a 2 percent chance of surviving.
He made it through the night.
“The next morning, I was doing the same,” Lisac said. “The doctors still weren’t sure I was going to make it. I was finally taken off the ventilator, I think, six days later. I was out of the ICU two days after that. I had been in the hospital for a total of 44 days.”
This week, Lisac graduates from the UCF College of Medicine and then goes on to a pediatrics residency at the University of Florida in Jacksonville. Ultimately he hopes to pursue a fellowship in hematology/oncology to help young cancer patients.
“They just have a different attitude about life,” he said of children fighting the deadly disease. “I love taking care of those kids. When a kid’s diagnosed with cancer, it’s not just the kid that has cancer. The entire family becomes involved in that life-changing diagnosis. You just feel such a relationship with those families.”
As part of his family’s battle, Lisac’s mother kept a journal of all of his treatments: 1,196 doctor’s appointments. 57 emergency room visits. 269 physical therapy visits. 257 doses of antibiotics. 157 doses of chemotherapy. 68 blood transfusions. 149 overnight hospital stays. 25 surgeries. 30 spinal taps.
The steroids he received to attack rejection of his bone marrow transplant destroyed bone tissue in his hips, knees and ankles. He spent much of high school in a wheelchair. He had hip and knee replacements and more than a year of physical therapy before he was able to walk again – across the stage at graduation to give a speech as class valedictorian.
Lisac earned a biology degree from Linfield College in his home state of Oregon, doing research on various forms of cancer. He found himself drawn to medicine as a career, hoping to care for patients the same way his bone marrow transplant doctor had cared for him.
UCF “just seemed like a great fit,” he said. “It was all very advanced and cutting-edge. And the warm weather down here didn’t hurt. With my joint replacements, my joints hurt a ton in the cold weather.”
Classmates are drawn to Lisac’s courage in dealing with cancer and the way he will share it in caring for others. “I love Robert because he is completely genuine,” said Allison McLellan, who will also graduate May 18 and enter pediatrics. “He will be a great pediatrician because he doesn’t care about status – he cares about results.”
Lisac says he hopes his journey will inspire young cancer patients. “I want to give back to that community that gave me so much,” he said. “I have come to learn we have no guarantees for tomorrow. We are to live each day as it comes. Cancer gives you a fresh perspective on life. It makes you grow up fast. It makes you appreciate the good days, and how precious life really is.”
—by Wendy Sarubbi, courtesy of University of Central Florida