Photo by Lee Woolcock
Dr Josep Sánchez de Toledo
Nicola Thornton chats with Dr Josep Sánchez de Toledo, Head of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology at Vall d'Hebron Hospital, who has been named Catalan of the Year 2012.
Winning Catalan of the Year was delightful, but I’m a still a bit overwhelmed! When I got home the day of the announcement [May 14th, 2013], tired and hungry after all the fuss, I realised I had 300 WhatsApps and 200 messages on my phone.
In my case, it’s not a personal award. It represents recognition for a group of people from the Hospital Vall d’Hebron. The prize is for the children, the families, the doctors, the nurses, the service staff, the cleaning lady... everyone involved.
The good atmosphere in our department stems from the philosophy of my predecessors, Dr. Padruges and Dr. Jordi Prats Viñas, who combined medical practices with humanist principles. We try to bring smiles to the surface. No matter what the situation, there’s a point where hope and positivity come through.
My interest in medicine began at five years of age, when I had polio. I remember it being a very important time in my life with the involvement of a lot of medical professionals. I stayed in touch with the doctor who treated me and I suppose it all stemmed from that. I studied at the UAB and got my first job in 1975 as a resident doctor at Vall d’Hebron, and in 1978, moved into children’s oncology. In 2003, I became head of the department of pediatric oncology.
I think cancer treatment, especially leukemia, has undergone the most spectacular change. Since 1952, when Dr. Sidney Farrell put the first boy into remission in the US, the development has been phenomenal. Nowadays, 90 percent of cancer in this area can be cured.
Years ago, they often had to amputate the limb if the bone was cancerous. Nowadays, the affected bone can be replaced with a prosthetic. It’s been a continuous success of new drugs, new treatments, better use of radiotherapy, and a more sophisticated and elegant surgical approach to different diseases. The introduction of molecular biology in recent years has been more amazing still. It offers a better diagnosis, a better prognosis, and helps us find new drugs for the treatment of cancer, and the survival rate is currently 80 percent. This is probably the greatest success in medicine.
Empathy is very important in my work. Here, the child is the star and the family, too. We have found that the best thing is to keep them informed every step of the way, the children as well as the adults. At the diagnosis stage, everyone is scared. Some parents blame themselves and can be quite aggressive when they first hear the news. The children don’t understand what is happening. However, if we can explain everything at a level at which they all understand, it creates trust between us and them and they gradually forget their fears.
I am also a patron of the Casa Ronald McDonald, part of the international Ronald McDonald Homes Foundation. This offers children and their families a home away from home while they are being treated, and there are around 200 in the world. The home in Barcelona was opened at the turn of this century. It has 15 rooms, a games room, kitchens, a meeting room and a garden. It’s like a hotel. We strongly believe that the child’s bedroom should be a sanctuary, not a place to have treatment.
Working in this field has completely changed my value system. I place a lot more importance on relationships, friendships and solidarity and I have a wonderful family. I’ve learned it’s so important to listen to people and not worry about pride or material things, and to not get stressed when the washing machine breaks down.
My favourite place in the city is the church and streets around Santa Maria del Mar. I lived near there when I was a boy and it was a happy time. When I am on my own, I sometimes like to write with an ink pen and shave with a blade as a means of holding onto some of the old traditions. Montseny in the autumn is also very special; it offers the most beautiful views.
You must choose your words with care. I’ve had many former patients tell me, “20 years ago, you told me such and such”, things I never remember saying! It’s made me realise that words carry responsibility.