WGH radiation oncologist has a heart for serving patients at home and across the globe

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Physician Article


WGH radiation oncologist has a heart for serving patients at home and across the globe

2/05/16

Dr. Robert Taylor, West Georgia Health’s new radiation oncologist, didn’t go to college with dreams of becoming a medical doctor. 

He wanted to be an engineer.

Coming from a family of engineers, it made perfect sense to pursue a path that already came natural to him. So after graduating from his Pennsylvania high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

He then earned a Ph.D. in engineering from Princeton University, where he received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He also received an NSF post-doctoral NATO fellowship—one of 20 awarded to all disciplines nationwide—for a year of independent research in Italy.

But then, he said, God began leading his wife, Karin, and him down a strikingly different path. 

“God got ahold of us in our early 30s,” Dr. Taylor said. “We felt led to help people, to go on medical mission trips and eventually to both go to medical school.”

The two traveled south to the Medical University of South Carolina, where they each earned a doctor of medicine degree in 2010.  He graduated second in his class.

About the same time they began their studies at MUSC, the couple volunteered at a medical clinic in Romania for two weeks. Two years later, they assisted in a medical clinic for two weeks in Uganda, where their team provided primary care to more than 2,000 people a day.

Last summer, they were part of a medical team to Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. This last May, they spent a month in Zambia, where Dr. Taylor helped provide radiation care with the one central radiation machine the country has to serve patients in Zambia and its surrounding countries.

“We were trying to treat as many patients we could with technology that was so much more limited than what we have here,” he said. “I was treating 90 patients a day and prescribing treatment using plain X-rays that I drew on with a marker to illustrate what and where to treat.”

Dr. Taylor said it was heartbreaking to see so many women with cervical cancer, especially those whose cancer was in an advanced stage.

“About 50 percent of the patients we saw had cervical cancer, and because we didn’t have the tools we have here in the United States, we couldn’t treat the advanced cases,” he said. “Some people on our team had the heartbreaking job of telling women their cancer was too advanced to be treated and that they would have to go to hospice.”

The Taylors spent their nights and weekends in Zambia teaching and equipping members of a local church, Highlands Baptist, to perform rudimentary health care, such as blood pressure and diabetic screenings. They plan to continue their work in Zambia as they partner with the country’s Ministry of Health and the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.

Dr. Taylor and his wife have three children, ages 14, 12, and 1, and they will soon welcome their adopted daughter from China as well as an adopted 4-year-old son. He said God pointed them to LaGrange after he completed an internship in internal medicine at Carolinas Medical Center and his residency in radiation oncology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“An opportunity actually arose for us to accept an offer very close to my parents at the beach in South Carolina,” he said. “But when we visited LaGrange, God really made it clear through the people we met at West Georgia Health and the people we met in town that this is where we’re supposed to be.”

Dr. Taylor says he is excited about the technology that has been available at the Enoch Callaway Cancer Clinic and two other technologies recently added:  stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) and stereotactic ablative radio therapy (SABR).  Dr. Taylor has done extensive research in SABR and was honored with the ASTRO 2012 Annual Meeting Scientific Abstract Award for his SABR research.

“With stereotactic radiosurgery, we have the ability to treat brain as well as other tumors in a single session with no incision,” said Dr. Taylor, who has more than 60 peer-reviewed publications and patents. “With it, you can destroy a tumor completely using high doses of radiation that’s extraordinarily precise just to the area of the tumor without affecting the rest of the body.”

SABR technology primarily treats lung tumors in the same way, but is even more technologically challenging since the tumor is moving while the patient breathes.

“We are excited to be implementing respiratory gating, which is a technology that tracks the tumor during breathing and automatically turns on and off the radiation beam to precisely target the tumor while it moves,” Dr. Taylor said.

The cancer center has also added optical surface monitoring, which is a laser system that can position the patient to millimeter precision to allow for exact targeting of the tumor for stereotactic radiosurgery.

Dr. Taylor said he feels privileged to be a part of his patients’ treatment plans and to get to know them during their radiation treatments.

“This field is incredibly fulfilling,” he said. “I get to help and serve people in moments of great need at a time of their lives when everything is turned upside down, and I see them intensively for six or seven weeks and really get to know them on a personal level. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”