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  • Robert and Erica Mayer

    For these oncologists, work feels like home

    Erica Mayer, and her father Robert Mayer, are both physicians at Dana-FarberErica Mayer, and her father Robert Mayer, are both physicians at Dana-Farber 

    When meeting one recent morning on Dana 16, the two oncologists could not come to a consensus. Lacking any proper documentation to review, they had only their own memories to serve them.

    "You were just a tot of 5 or 6 the first time you did Saturday rounds with me," said the first doctor. "I used to baby-sit, and you'd hide behind my white coat."

    "You never baby-sat!" his colleague replied with a laugh. "And there's no way I was that young."

    While these Dana-Farber physicians can't decide exactly when their professional collaboration began, they do agree it's stronger than ever. Erica Mayer, MD, MPH, on staff with the Breast Oncology Program since 2006, was the little girl who tagged along with her father Robert J. Mayer, MD, when he visited patients back in the 1970s and '80s (not an entirely uncommon practice then). Bob is now director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology, and the two regularly see each other at meetings and exchange patient insights. Both also serve on the admissions committee for Harvard Medical School.

    It's an enjoyable arrangement, and one that seemed destined to occur. Bob Mayer, himself the son of a physician, joined Dana-Farber's faculty in July 1974 when his elder daughter Erica was four months old. His wife, Jane Mayer, LICSW, became director of the social work department at neighboring Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Erica and her sister Rachel went to The Winsor School just across the street. The family's involvement with Dana-Farber grew more when Jane joined the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an all-volunteer organization for which she has chaired the Art and Environment Committee for the past decade.

    While Jane made it a point to attend the girls' sports games and other activities, Bob, unfortunately, often missed them while traveling. This made the time Erica spent with him during his weekend rounds that much more special, as it gave them a chance to bond and fueled her growing passion for medicine and science.

    The experience made a deep impression. "I enjoyed seeing the interaction between my father and his patients - and was impressed by the close connections he developed with them," says Erica. "It was clear how much the patients benefited from such personalized care."

    Although she says her father never tried to influence her decisions, she attended his undergraduate alma mater (Williams College) and worked in a lab at Dana-Farber's pediatric partner, Children's Hospital Boston, during collegiate summers. Then, after a year teaching English in Japan, she attended Harvard Medical School - just as her dad had.

    Finding her niche

    Potential conflicts of interest arose after Erica finished HMS. Bob sits on the decision-making committees for Brigham and Women's Hospital's Internal Medicine residency program, as well as Dana-Farber's fellowship program (the latter of which he has chaired for more than 20 years). Erica sought inclusion to both in a four-year span; in each case Bob stepped aside and let others decide her fate, and she was selected for both programs.

    Once she was on the job as a fellow at Dana-Farber in 2003, Erica says her colleagues eliminated any awkwardness. "They never treated me differently despite my father being the fellowship director," she explains. "I was lucky to have trained with some pretty incredible young doctors at Dana-Farber." But while all other Dana-Farber fellows meet at least twice a year with Bob Mayer to discuss their progress and future goals, he and Erica agreed this would not work in her case. "That was definitely frustrating," she says. "People come to this fellowship to gain from the mentorship and guidance of Bob Mayer, but I had to find alternative guidance [with another physician leader] during my training."

    When not at work, Bob and daughter Erica Mayer enjoy spending time with Erica's children, Jamie (at right) and baby Kate When not at work, Bob and daughter Erica Mayer enjoy spending time with Erica's children, Jamie (at right) and baby Kate 

    Now, with these challenges behind them, their relationship is stronger and more open-ended than ever. They can see each other at work or at home - they both live in Newton, just three miles apart - and joke that the only one who puts any restrictions on how much they "talk shop" is Jane Mayer. Erica, who is married to Doug Drachman, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, balances the demands of her job in the Breast Oncology Center with being the mother of two young children. By choosing a different field to focus on from her fathers, she is forming her own "niche" at Dana-Farber.

    "They share certain qualities - innate intelligence, perseverance, attention to detail, commitment to the patients, but they also are very different people," says Eric Winer, MD, director of the Breast Oncology Program and Erica's mentor. "I think Bob is a truly remarkable and wonderful individual, but carbon copies don't work. Erica is both similar enough and different enough from her father to be her own remarkable and wonderful self."

    Photos: Gus Freedman 

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