Dr. Steven Pergam, an infectious disease physician-researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, has received the 2018 Dr. Ali Al-Johani Award, which recognizes exceptional medical care and compassion to transplant patients and families.
“This was the world’s easiest task for the selection committee,” said Hutch Clinical Research Division Director Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, who presented the award to Pergam on Tuesday. “We had a dozen nominations for you, all of them extolling your virtues as a physician.”
Awardees are nominated by their fellow caregivers and chosen by a committee that includes the clinical research division director and representatives from nursing, clinical faculty, and quality and patient services. Pergam is the 15th Fred Hutch physician-researcher to receive the award and the first infectious disease specialist to do so.
Back in the early days of bone marrow transplantations, Fred Hutch launched the first program in the country to study and treat the unique infections that plague transplant patients. At that time, infection was the most common cause of death in such patients and a scourge as well for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Today, the Hutch has the largest group of infectious disease researchers at any cancer center, with advances in infection prevention and treatment contributing significantly to cure rates.
“We can’t do anything we do without support from our infectious disease experts,” said Davidson, who is also a Hutch senior vice president and a breast medical oncologist. “They’re absolutely vital.”
Pergam came to Fred Hutch in 2005 for a postdoctoral fellowship in infectious diseases after completing his residency in internal medicine and working as an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. According to Dr. Michael Boeckh, head of the Hutch’s Infectious Disease Sciences Program and Pergam’s mentor, Pergam sought out the fellowship after discovering his passion for infectious diseases while researching West Nile virus.
“It became clear that his real passion is for clinical care,” said Boeckh, clearly proud of his mentee. “He is known as a passionate patient care advocate and an outstanding physician.”
In introducing Pergam at the award presentation, Boeckh credited him with making the Hutch a national leader in infection prevention research and practice.
Pergam brings unique insights to his position — that of a patient. Having lived for years with an autoimmune disease, he needed a kidney transplant in 2003, awakening from surgery on the same day he received notification that he’d gotten the fellowship. Then an infection contracted from the transplant led to lymphoma, delaying his move to Seattle while he (successfully) underwent chemotherapy.
The experience, he has said, including a lifelong need for immune-suppressing drugs to prevent his body from rejecting his new kidney, “made me appreciate what it’s like, the immune-compromised world. It really made me think about transplant and infections and cancer and infections. It was something that I … sought out when I came here.”
In accepting the award, Pergam thanked Boeckh and “all of you, everyone who’s helped me along the way.”
He also noted how honored he was to follow in the footsteps of the 2017 winner, blood cancer physician-scientist Dr. Oliver “Ollie” W. Press, who died in October from complications of glioma, a brain cancer. Press made foundational contributions to the development of targeted cancer therapies while also being known as an extraordinary mentor and a beloved physician.
“What’s special about this year’s award is I’m winning it after Ollie,” said Pergam. “That means a lot to all of us in the room.”
The Dr. Ali Al-Johani Award, which comes with a cash prize and a crystal plaque, began in 2001 with a contribution from its namesake, a former Hutch leukemia patient who wished to reward excellent patient care in gratitude for the care he received. Previous winners are:
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.