Like Father, Like Son

In the late 1970s, shaggy-haired kids wearing jeans and sandals walked the zigzag of footpaths between Gilbert, the Commons and Humanities as a vinyl Eagles’ album blared from the dorm room of a tall, long-limbed kid named Braithwaite.

In 2011, different shaggy-haired kids wearing jeans and sandals walk the same cement zigzag as an Eagles’ tune, ripped from a CD and converted to an Mp3 file, blares from the dorm room of a different tall, long-limbed kid, also named Braithwaite.

More than three decades after Dr. Tom Braithwaite, class of 1978, graduated and left Augustana for the University of South Dakota School of Medicine, his son, Matt Braithwaite, class of 2011, is preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps.

But music – and countless hours spent studying inside the Gilbert Science Center – aren’t the only things this father and son have in common.

Superheroes

His dad remembers Matt, now 22-years old, as a curious kid who loved shooting hoops, tossing a baseball and playing with Power Rangers.

“He loved playing superheroes,” he says, smiling at the memory.

But for Matt, a biology major, his real hero, he says, was his dad. 

“As a kid, I always looked up to my dad – I still do. I was exposed to what he was doing professionally because I would visit him at the hospital or the clinic. I knew he was an outstanding physician because time and time again, families would ask me, ‘is Dr. Braithwaite your father? We’re so grateful for him; he helped our family.’”

Taking after his father, this fall Matt will begin the next phase of his studies as a first year medical student at the Sanford-USD School of Medicine in Vermillion. [2011 UPDATE: Matt now attends the University of Iowa School of Medicine.] His decision to pursue a career in medicine, he says, was fueled by watching his dad, and by his interest in science.

“It’s been a choice I’ve made for myself. The draw, for me, is the ability to channel my scientific interests into helping people in need.”

Following research experiences in Sioux Falls at the Avera Research lab; in Boston at Harvard University, working under Dr. Mark Larson, assistant professor of biology at Augustana, on platelet formation; and during a J-Term study abroad course in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, Matt’s interest in science increased exponentially.

“Those experiences really fueled my scientific curiosity and really helped me mature as a student of science. I learned how to ask good questions and, from there, how to go about answering them problematically. They certainly spurred my interest in a health-related career.”

While Matt credits some of GSC’s science icons of today – Dr. Mark Larson, Dr. Gary Earl and Dr. Craig Spencer – as great mentors and affirming advisors, Tom, a Chemistry major at Augustana and now a hospitalist with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, had the chance to study under GSC’s scientific pioneers of yesterday –  Dr. Roy Kintner, Dr. Arlen Viste, Dr. Lee Johnson and Dr. Lansing Prescott.

“Those people didn’t just teach science for science’s sake. They understood that science is a tool,” he said.

He met his wife, Tacey, class of 1976, at Augustana. The two began dating at USD, while he was in med school and she was studying at the USD School of Law. In addition to Matt, the Braithwaites also have a daughter, Arianne, 26, who is completing seminary in Chicago.

After graduating from USD, Tom, 54, completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa. He began his career specializing in Internal Medicine and, in 2003, took on the role of hospitalist, a position that allows him to oversee the medical management of adult in-patients.

Perspectives

After more than two decades of practicing medicine, Tom found himself on the other side of the examination room in 2003 when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, Matt was getting set to start high school.

He was treated with chemotherapy and went into remission. He thought, he says, he had beaten the disease.

“I thought it was done. I ran a half marathon in 2004 to celebrate my recovery.”

His journey, he learned, was far from over. In 2008, he relapsed. A year later, he went into remission, only to relapse again in 2010.

“When it came back in 2008, I realized that this was going to be my companion.”

His time as a patient, he says, has brought a new perspective to his role as a doctor.

“The diagnosis and the disease itself remind me of my own vulnerability. As a doctor, you develop this sort of veneer of invulnerability – over and over again you think, ‘this can’t happen to me.’”

“The reality is, it can.”

As a doctor, he also carried the burden, and the advantage, of knowledge.

“I felt a heavy responsibility to make sure my family understood what was going on every step of the way because ultimately, understanding alleviates fear. At the same time, being medically trained was a huge advantage in going through this. The fact that I could understand what was going on helped me to help my family get through it.”

Throughout the experience, he also came face to face with the frustration of waiting – waiting for test results, waiting for answers to questions and waiting for guidance on the next step.

“Now, I work really hard to ease the agony of waiting for my patients in any way I can. If it means going to a patient’s room at 8 p.m. to give them the test results I received at 7:30 p.m., then I’ll do that.”

In recognition of his excellence in medicine, and in honor of his efforts to help patients, Tom was named one of the Top 10 Hospitalists in the country by the American College of Physicians earlier this year, an award for which his colleagues nominated him.

After spending the better part of three months undergoing a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., last summer, today Tom is in complete remission. His prognosis, he says, is good.

“I feel good. I’m not back to patient care yet because my immune system is still maturing, but I’m running 20-25 miles each week and I have a good sense of energy.”

Footsteps

For Matt, watching his family manage the challenge of sickness added to his interest in science and medicine.

“Knowing my dad was sick was a presence that was with me all the time, in the back of my mind. It definitely pushed me to become more interested in the science of cancer and maybe, to focus on oncology. At this point though, that’s a decision for later.”

As his dad, Tom says he’s just happy his son has found his calling.

“I’m gratified he found something he’s passionate in – that he’s found his calling and that he’s using his God-given gifts.”

While more than 30 years have passed since Tom was a student at Augustana, he says some things haven’t changed.

“GSC has certainly been a home away from home for both of us,” he says, smiling. He laughs at the mention of the Eagles (although he contends his roommate was the real fan of the group). “My roommate played the Eagles album in our room all the time. He recently sent me their latest CD. Matt listened to it, burned a copy, and is now playing it in his dorm room. Life really does come full circle.”

Tom also understands the emotional ride of the medical school application process.

“It’s not de ja vue, but listening to Matt throughout the process certainly feels familiar. It really did conjure up so many memories for me,” he said. “He has a big process ahead of him – from the rigorous training to learning about the business aspects of medicine.”

“My ultimate hope is that he never loses his sense of wonder. At the end of the day, medicine is about people – their suffering; their vulnerable moments; and their well-being. It’s also about life-long education.”

For Matt, it’s nice to know that someone’s been in his shoes before.

“It’s really comforting to know that he can relate to everything I’m going through,” he said.

For Tom, watching Matt grow up from a curious young boy to a curious young scientist and a competitive athlete has been the ultimate gift.

A standout on Augustana’s track and cross country teams, Matt has been widely recognized for his success as a student-athlete.

Most recently, he received the 2011 Dr. William Britton Scholar-Athlete Award for Academic Excellence, an award that recognizes the top male student-athlete within the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. He was also named a 2011 NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship winner and was a 2010 NCAA Elite 88 winner at the Division II Men’s Cross Country Championship, the first Viking in school history to earn the award. The Elite 88 is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 88 championships.

Matt was an All-American in cross country in 2010. He was named a United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic Team member, earned Academic All-NSIC honors this past season and was presented with the NSIC Myles Brand All-Academic with Distinction Award from the NSIC this spring.

“Parenting is like unwrapping a present in supreme slow motion,” Tom said. “You don’t really know what you’re unwrapping, because your children grow and change every day, but they’re the greatest gift ever. Matt and I are connected in so many ways – through running, through Augie, through our love of science, but mostly because I love him. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

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