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Dirk Iglehart, MD, had just moved to Boston and a new job as head of the Women's Cancers Program at Dana-Farber when his phone rang on Aug. 2, 1999. It was the call every parent dreads.
His 18-year-old daughter, Liz Iglehart, had been in a car accident in Wisconsin. Her mother, Grace - Dirk's former wife - had been killed, and the hospital thought Liz "probably wasn't going to make it."
Only after Dirk traveled nearly 1,000 miles that day to see Liz in the hospital did he learn she was still alive. The crash had left her with major head and leg injuries, however, and she was in a coma for several weeks.
"It was like I was in a snow globe," says Liz of the first days after she woke from her coma. "Everything had been shaken up and was now in a totally different position. My mom was gone, my left knee was shattered, I couldn't see out of one eye, my face was scarred, my hair was shaved off, and I was in pain all the time.
"But one thing was the same; my dad was always there."
Fast forward 10 years, and this father and daughter - now Dana-Farber colleagues - can talk openly about the darkest days of their lives and how they got through them together.
Although the Igleharts can be somber when describing Liz's crash and recovery, they quickly fall into a routine of playful banter. Both are constant laughers, Liz emitting a rat-a-tat-tat of high-pitched chuckles while Dirk chimes in with a deep, mad-scientist version. The love and respect between them is obvious during these moments, just like when they complete each other's sentences.
Part of their familiarity comes from seeing each other in hallways on a regular basis. Both work in Dana-Farber's Department of Cancer Biology; Dirk continues to run the Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers, while Liz is as an administrative assistant to the Administrative Director. Yet even more than office placement, it's their shared experiences that have brought the pair so close together.
Moving with his present wife Elizabeth to Wisconsin while Liz underwent operations and rehab there in 1999, Dirk felt hopeless. Despite his medical training and 25 years as a surgeon, he couldn't really help his daughter.
"I was unprepared emotionally and professionally for this," he admits today. "My whole career I had been receiving patients, stabilizing them, and then passing them on to specialists. I never knew what happened to these people, what they had to go through on the other side."
Dirk adjusted quickly, staying with Liz each step of the way as she re-learned to walk, talk, and see with her right eye (she is legally blind in her left). Liz eventually became well enough to move to Massachusetts to live with Dirk, Elizabeth, and her younger half-brother and sister.
Still, rough times lay ahead.
"I hated life for a while," says Liz, who suffered from learning disabilities before the accident and then had to cope with an almost complete loss of short-term memory.
"People kept saying I should be lucky, but I'd say, 'What the hell for?' Time and acceptance got me past the anger. My mom had been a wonderful person who enjoyed life, and I knew she'd be mad at how I was acting."
Her father was also a big help. "He knew what to say when, and how to motivate me to keep trying," she says. This included encouraging Liz to enroll in Lesley's College's Threshold Program, a two-year curriculum that offers young adults with diverse learning disabilities a collegiate experience, including living on campus.
"Lesley gave me a fresh start and the opportunity to make friends and gain independence and self-esteem," says Liz. "I could try out different fields and really start thinking about my future."
That future would be at Dana-Farber. Feeling it would be good for Liz and allow him to keep a closer eye on her, Dirk had started bringing her in to help out around his office.
There she came under the eye of Ada Watson, now administrative director for the Cancer Biology department, who would become Liz's best friend and mentor at the Institute.
By the time she graduated from Lesley, Liz was ready for a more substantial role at Dana-Farber.
With time, Liz has formulated techniques to make her a valuable member of the Cancer Biology staff. To compensate for her short-term memory loss, she has a special version of Outlook Calendar that enables her to map out her day. She has rigged her phone to ring and display additional reminders, and has organized her desk so she can see her computer, phone, and the office door within her limited field of vision.
"Time management will always be my big challenge," Liz says, "but I've learned how to take things step-by-step and ask for help when needed."
Says Watson: "What Liz has accomplished in the past couple years is phenomenal. She juggles our calendars, fields questions from callers, and keeps the department centered. A lot of our staff put in long hours, and when they come in tired, she lifts their spirits with her smile."
The return of her sunny disposition has made Liz a popular character far beyond her department as well.
"I call her the Mayor of Dana-Farber," says Dirk. "I'll be on an elevator, and somebody will look at my nametag and say, 'Are you Liz's father?' I'm so proud that she's grown up to be a mature, self-assured person with a great sense of humor and exquisite judgment about people."
The admiration goes both ways. "At home my dad's a goofball, so I enjoy getting to see the serious side of him at work, where everybody respects him so much," says Liz. "He's been wonderful throughout everything, and so have my coworkers.
"Having a full and successful life, being an integral part of a team at work, and being a good friend, sibling, and daughter - all of these things make me proud."