Through her work at Denver Health and in Uganda, Oncologist Ana Oton Pays It Forward
Oncologist Ana Oton knew the time had come for the cowboy. He was dying and she could do no more to help him. During his many clinic visits, Oton and the cowboy had formed a special bond, and she decided to write him a letter telling him how much she enjoyed taking care of him.
“His wife called me wanting to know if I wrote that letter to everyone or just him,” she recalls. “It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, I told her. After he died, she called to thank me, to tell me how happy he was to find a doctor who really cared about him. It broke my heart.”
Oton earned her medical degree from the Central University of Venezuela, where students undergo a rigorous, seven-year course of study post-high school. After training, Oton moved to Spain with her parents, where she worked in a research lab.
“I knew from the age of 10 that I wanted to live in the United States,” says Oton, investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and assistant professor of medical oncology at the CU medical school. “To do that as a physician, I had to find U.S. physicians who would write me letters of recommendation for a medical residency.”
For five months in 2000, Oton worked in a Miami, Fla. hospital nearly around the clock without pay in an observership, learning English on the fly. After five months, two physicians wrote her glowing recommendations and she began a residency program at the University of Miami.
“I was fascinated by the type of relationships you could establish with patients,” says Oton. “People were telling me their lives, trusting me. This is really powerful.”
Oton’s winding road to Colorado included one more stop for a fellowship in oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied under lung cancer expert Dr. Chandra Belani. When her fellowship ended in 2007, she enrolled in a program that allowed her to earn her green card by working in an underserved hospital for three years. She came to Denver Health—Denver’s safety net hospital and member of the CU Cancer Center consortium.
“The Denver Health population is considerably underserved,” she says. “About 99 percent of my patients are minority, homeless, uninsured or any combination of these. My work is very challenging because my patients not only have cancer, they have multiple problems—social problems, comorbidities— and they don’t have money. Cancer is often just one problem, and it may not be as bad as other problems in their lives.”
At Denver Health, Oton is both doctor and social worker, offering cutting-edge clinical trials but also helping her patients get connected with needed services, and sometimes making legal statements to help bring relatives of deathly ill patients to the country to say their goodbyes. Since 2010, Oton has been involved in a series of 45-second public service announcements on Azteca, a Colorado Spanish language TV network that educates viewers about cancer prevention and treatment.
“We know that research should not only be applied to Caucasian patients,” she says. “Hispanic groups are the fastest growing in the United States. We’re talking about millions of people in the future with cancer, and we need to involve them.”
While Oton claims she has no spare moments in her day, she is embarking on a new project. In February 2012, she spent two and a half weeks in Uganda teaching at the University of East Africa.
“In Africa, in South America, in Asian countries, you can do small things that will make a huge difference,” she says. “I want to help, and to remember that people in underserved countries have exactly what I had when I was 17. It’s a curiosity about life, and about people. It’s a desire to help solve problems. I just want to give more to the world.”
Still despite growing administrative and teaching duties, it’s patients like the cowboy that keep Oton connected to the meaning of cancer care.
“I have been seeing patients since I was 17. I am 38. There are patients who make me smile, make me cry and make me believe in this job I do every day,” she says.