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  • Dr. Tom Beck, Dr. Dan Zuckerman, and Four Decades of Cancer Care in Idaho: 'Our place in change ...' 
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Dr. Tom Beck, Dr. Dan Zuckerman, and Four Decades of Cancer Care in Idaho: ‘Our place in change …’

By Dr. David C. Pate, News and Community
September 24, 2013

Every now and then you meet a leader who had great vision, acted on it, and changed an organization for the better.   

One such leader is Dr. Tom Beck. Soft-spoken, unpretentious, and very modest, Dr. Beck has changed the course of cancer care in Idaho and contributed to St. Luke’s Health System being the premier cancer center in the state. 

Now he is passing the baton to the son of one of his first partners in medical practice. Dr. Dan Zuckerman is an outstanding medical oncologist, an extremely caring physician, and someone who is bursting with ideas about the best approaches to cancer as part of the new care model St. Luke’s is pursuing – accountable care.  I am very much looking forward to Dan helping us transform health care.

You are all invited to join us as we celebrate Dr. Beck’s retirement from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday, Sept.  30 in the pedestrian plaza of St. Luke’s Boise. Dr. Beck will greet well-wishers at 4 p.m. and a formal program will start at 5 p.m. The plaza was the site of MSTI’s first facility, at 191 Bannock St., and where Dr. Beck started his life-changing work at St. Luke’s.

Below the following report, written by Sandra Wurdemann, St. Luke’s Health System internal communications coordinator, is a chronology of events that have shaped MSTI and cancer care in Idaho. Enjoy!

Medical oncologist Dr. Tom Beck joined St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in 1975, as the young organization began expansion of its only facility, in Boise.

It was supposed to be an interim position between his fellowship at the University of Utah and his return to the university as a professor. It didn’t work out that way.

“After I’d been here a year, I didn’t want to go back,” he said.

In 38 years, Dr. Beck has served in a number of positions, including executive medical director of St. Luke’s MSTI for the past 20. On Sept. 30, he will hand the reins to Dr. Dan Zuckerman, a medical oncologist who grew up at St. Luke’s and MSTI. Dr. Beck will continue seeing patients, fly fishing, and ranching.

The two have much in common, said Dr. Norm Zuckerman, Dr. Beck’s first partner and Dr. Dan Zuckerman’s father.

“Dan was a history major and Tom loves history,” Dr. Zuckerman said. “They share this historical perspective on medicine in the U.S., where we were, where we are, and what is our place in change.”

Dr. Beck applauds the foresight and dedication of those who saw the opportunities and needs, and established the institute in 1969, as well as the strong support of St. Luke’s leadership and the community to sustain and grow it.

MSTI now serves patients across the region at sites in Twin Falls, Meridian, Nampa, and Fruitland, and provides physician outreach to rural areas and Idaho’s only hemophilia center and pediatric oncology services. MSTI also has made a national name for itself in research during Dr. Beck’s administration.

Mark Parkinson, administrator of St. Luke’s MSTI, said Dr. Beck’s world view and local perspective gave him a unique leadership approach that was strong and refreshing.

“When Dr. Beck speaks, people listen, and are always better for it,” Parkinson said. “He has a brilliant mind and attacks complex issues with logic and sensitivity.”

Dr. Beck was born in Rexburg and raised on farms in eastern Idaho. After graduating from Shelley High School, he received a bachelor’s degree at Utah State University and a medical degree at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.

In 1968, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served three years as a general medical officer in Germany and France. He completed residencies in pathology and medicine, and was chief fellow in hematology at the University of Utah, prior to joining MSTI.

In the mid-1970s, MSTI had two physicians, two radiation oncologists, and a medical oncologist. Tools for diagnosis and treatment of cancer were limited, Dr. Beck said.

“Cancer treatment in the early ‘70s was pretty grim,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of drugs. Drugs work a lot better. Several cancers can be cured now. … Our diagnostic ability is so much better than it used to be and our understanding of DNA, genome mapping.”

Dr. Norm Zuckerman joined Dr. Beck at MSTI in 1977. The two men started traveling to Lewiston, Coeur d’Alene, and Moscow to consult with physicians and others in tumor boards, a collaborative approach. They made the trips north for eight years.

“I can’t overstate the importance of Norm coming here,” Dr. Beck said. “He was willing to spend time and support the program. It was a really big deal. He was willing to travel,” mostly by car, year-round.

They sometimes flew in a small airplane, said Dr. Norm Zuckerman. Once while taking off, a window fell off the aircraft and they had to return and land. The pilot found the window, popped it back in, and took off again, Zuckerman said.

About 1984, they reached out to Twin Falls to start tumor boards.

“MSTI was a precursor to acceptance of St. Luke’s, and led to the hospital and clinic coming together,” Zuckerman said. “Tom has always been looking at the big picture.”

Dr. Beck also was on the hunt for drug therapies that would help patients, and brought a number of national clinical trials to Boise. In the late 1980s, he was the principal investigator for Zofran, a drug that prevents nausea and vomiting that can result from chemotherapy.

“Zofran was a real breakthrough,” he said.

MSTI clinical trials in the late 1980s helped in the development of Gleevec to treat multiple cancers and of Rituxan, used to treat many lymphomas, leukemias, transplant rejection, and autoimmune disorders. In the mid-1990s, MSTI ran a clinical trial for Herceptin to treat breast cancers. These drugs are still used today.

As a result of his effective leadership, pharmaceutical companies pursued Dr. Beck to be involved in studies with renowned cancer centers, such as M.D. Anderson, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of California, San Francisco.

His commitment to research led to the development of St. Luke’s MSTI’s Institutional Review Board, and Dr. Beck was instrumental in creating the Mountain States Tumor and Medical Research Institute, the only medical research institute in the state.

At the heart of his efforts is his passion for helping patients, such as a Twin Falls patient of Dr. Beck’s since 1985 who credits his dedication with helping her live decades beyond a terminal cancer diagnosis in the 1990s.

“He loves his patients and his patients love him,” said Ann Chase, his former executive assistant. “It’s his integrity, kindness.”

Picking just the right replacement for Dr. Beck was vital to ensuring the continued success of St. Luke’s MSTI, Chase said.

“This is just too important to leave to just anyone,” she said.

The organization needed someone with a stellar medical background and a good understanding of local history and culture. A couple of years after a national search didn’t turn up a good fit, leadership turned within, to Dr. Dan Zuckerman.

“He has the tools and education to continue what Tom has started,” Dr. Norm Zuckerman said. “He’s competent, and he happens to be my son.”

As a child, Dan made rounds at St. Luke’s Boise with his father. He spent many afternoons after school at MSTI, enjoying Lorna Doone shortbread cookies and juice. He attended Garfield Elementary, East Junior High, and Boise High schools.

Dr. Norm Zuckerman said his son was a great reader, thorough, and very independent, and believes he has had little influence on Dan’s decision to be a doctor.

“Dan has always made his own decisions and usually the right ones,” he said.

Dr. Dan Zuckerman said he got comfortable being in healthcare settings during rounds with his father. He worked as a hospital volunteer for three years in his teens and completed a one-month internship with his father during college.

When he was about age 8, a patient opened his eyes to the good that oncologists can do. He remembers a patient putting a hand on his shoulder and saying, “Your dad’s a great man.”

He looked up to Dr. Beck like an uncle figure, he said.

“I was in awe of Tom,” Dr. Dan Zuckerman said. “He’s a good, generous man.”

Zuckerman received a bachelor’s degree in history from Williams College in Massachusetts and a doctorate from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, with the intention of becoming a researcher.

After an internship and residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, he completed a fellowship in oncology and hematology at Dana-Farber/Partners

CancerCare, both Harvard-affiliated. He became increasingly more interested in treating patients than in spending time in solitary research.

“It was a different life to be a researcher, no patient interaction, hermetic,” he said. “I didn’t really have the personality for that. (As a medical oncologist) you can touch a lot of people’s lives, and it’s a great feeling.”

Zuckerman said his professional and personal lives came together when he was able join MSTI as a medical oncologist and move with his wife, Dana, and their three children to Boise.

“I wanted to come back to Boise, and I knew MSTI was a fantastic place,” he said.

He plans to expand and strengthen what Dr. Beck and others have built with partnerships nationally and locally in clinical trials, education, and policy.

“Ultimately it’s about the patients, and we’re able to do it more successfully,” he said.

About The Author

David C. Pate, M.D., J.D., is president and CEO of St. Luke's Health System, based in Boise, Idaho. Dr. Pate joined the System in 2009. He received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and his law degree from the University of Houston Law Center.