Dr. Hickman retires after a job well done
If you ask Dr. Robert Hickman why he worked at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance well past his retirement age instead of seeking sunshine in warmer states, the answer is simple: a deep devotion to his patients.
"They're some of the most wonderful people, struggling under the most strenuous circumstances, that you could bump into," said Hickman, who for many years placed intravenous central lines in Alliance patients.
"It was the patients who always made it worthwhile," said Hickman, who throughout his career sought to improve the quality of life and medical care for critically ill patients whose veins couldn't withstand additional needle sticks. That devotion led to the creation of what is now known as the Hickman catheter.
In September 2009, shortly after turning 82, Hickman retired from a long and fruitful career. In the 1970s, he was a member of the Hutchinson Center's transplant team, which made great strides in patient care. At the time, intravenous nutrition, blood draws and delivery of chemotherapy for leukemia patients were difficult challenges.
That's when Hickman began to tinker with the Broviac catheter, which was developed by a colleague to ease intravenous nutrition. It passed through a vein in the chest and into the right atrium of the heart to deliver nutrients. Hickman's adaptation allowed the catheter to do more than just deliver nutrients.
Hickman is quick to credit nurses for playing a critical role in the evolution of the catheter. "It was really the nurses who encouraged a single catheter to deliver nutrition and chemotherapy and to draw blood," he said. "The nurses recognized the value in a single line."
His accomplishment was widely celebrated. "It enabled us to do more transplants and to improve the quality of life and care we could give," Dr. Don Thomas, the Nobel Prize winner for his leukemia research, said in an interview in 2002.
The Hickman catheter, Thomas and others agreed, was of particular benefit to pediatric patients because they didn't need to suffer multiple needle sticks to receive chemotherapy and nutrition, and Hickman's skills at placing them-he was very gentle with his patients-became legendary.
Judy Campbell, a research nurse who joined the Hutch transplant team in 1969, said in an earlier interview that the Hickman catheter had a dramatic impact on patients.
"Patients were spared from multiple needle sticks per day, which made a huge difference in their quality of life," she said.
Hickman also was well known for his dedication and bedside manner, and he said he made it his business to treat everyone the same, even some of his more celebrated patients. One of them was a Soviet pilot who got cancer after dumping concrete to seal the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after the 1986 disaster. Most recently, he remembers working with Jose Carreras, the renowned tenor who now raises funds for cancer research.
"We treated hundreds of patients every year, and I kept working well beyond the age of retirement," Hickman said. "But that's because I enjoyed working with them so much. They were wonderful people and they contributed a great deal to my life."