Sometimes the physician, no matter how accomplished, becomes the patient, for which there is no training. That was the case for Larry Schlesinger, the physician-scientist who serves as president and CEO of Texas Biomedical Research Institute who awoke one day in September 2021 with a lump in his neck.
Schlesinger attributed it to a routine infection, but a previously planned visit to an ear, nose and throat physician led the specialist to conclude otherwise and immediately conduct an endoscopic examination of Schlesinger’s throat.
“Within about 20 minutes, he said, ‘Well, there it is’ and I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, we don’t have the tissue [biopsy] yet, but I can tell you that I think this is cancer.’”
Schlesinger turned to look at his wife, Judy, seated beside him in the examination room.
“We both trembled. … It was a moment I will never forget,” Schlesinger said. “I have so much ambition and drive, and here I am so active in my career — and then all of the sudden you’re thinking the worst. I live in an intellectual realm as a doctor when I hear people have cancer. … But when you’re told it’s you, it’s different. It’s very personal. … I had no defenses.”
His ENT specialist was right. A biopsy confirmed that Schlesinger had a viral-induced oral cancer, the result of being infected at some unknown point in his life with the human papillomavirus virus (HPV), which infects 75% of men, most of whom never experience symptoms or ever learn they carry the virus. In some cases, however, the virus leads to genital warts or certain kinds of cancer.
A highly recommended vaccine is now available to protect young people from contracting the virus, but the vaccine is ineffective for individuals who have already been exposed to HPV. Vaccines, unfortunately, are down as more adults are influenced by false information circulating online or because they fear the vaccine will somehow cause their children to become sexually active. As result, approximately half of all young people contract the virus.
I found out about Schlesinger’s condition later in 2021 when I called his office to discuss the latest spike in COVID-19 and the Texas response, only to learn than he and Judy had leased a temporary apartment at MD Anderson Center in Houston, where he had entered a clinical trial run by a longtime trusted colleague engaged in the most advanced treatment of the disease.
Schlesinger, I was told, couldn’t talk. Literally.
“Every day Judy and I walked to the dungeon, the MD Anderson basement, for my treatment,” Schlesinger, now back at work and appearing quite healthy, recalled in a recent interview, noting that he listened to Bruce Springsteen tunes while wearing “a Hannibal Lecter face mask” and getting 10 minute doses of radiation.
“From January 25 through March 5 I can’t describe what I went through,” Schlesinger said. “They pretty much tell you you are going to go through hell … but that I would eventually turn the corner. Having someone close to you that you love, nothing is more important.”
Each day, Judy prepared meals on a hot plate in the tiny apartment the two shared.
A scan in April showed the cancer completely gone, reaffirmed in a six-month scan done in July. Schlesinger will be screened again in five years, but he considers himself cured, and once again is focused on ambitious plans to expand Texas Biomed’s campus, staff and its nationally recognized research work.
Schlesinger, an infectious disease research leader, had been recruited to Texas Biomed in 2017 from his position at Ohio State University, where he had founded the school’s Infectious Diseases Research Institute.
He proved to be an important change agent, leading efforts to produce a 10-year strategic plan that calls for a multibillion expansion of campus facilities, research teams and projects. He elevated local fundraising and federal grant awards, and assembled a board of trustees that may be the most potent mix of leadership and wealth at any San Antonio nonprofit. His efforts alongside the leaders at UT Health San Antonio, UTSA and the Southwest Research Institute represent a new level of local research collaboration.
Schlesinger also placed a greater focus on infectious disease research at Texas Biomed, which proved propitious as COVID-19 hit in early 2020. Texas Biomed’s success stories now include early work on the first COVID-19 treatment and vaccine.
Research scientists at the institute founded in 1941 by Tom Slick Jr., the legendary San Antonio inventor, businessman, adventurer and heir to an Oklahoma oilfield fortune, had worked on the first Ebola treatment and vaccine, the hepatitis C cure, the hepatitis B vaccine and many other medical advances.
The 200-acre campus located on Military Drive on the city’s far West Side is home to 350 professors, research scientists, lab workers, veterinarians and 2,500 research animals, including nonhuman primates.
Yet many San Antonians seemed unaware of the nationally recognized institute, home to the country’s only privately owned biosafety level four (BSL-4) maximum containment laboratory, where research is safely conducted on deadly pathogens for which there currently is no known treatment or vaccine.
Upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, Schlesinger, like many, found his best treatment option was available at one of the country’s most advanced cancer centers. Interestingly, UT Health San Antonio is led by another physician, Dr. William Henrich, who survived a rare form of blood cancer called myelodysplasia (MDS), also after treatment at MD Anderson, which now operates a local outpatient cancer treatment center in partnership with UT Health San Antonio.
“It certainly turns the tables,” Henrich said in 2018. “The biggest benefit to me as a physician is that it has deepened my empathy for any individual that has anything wrong with them. I now have an appreciative view of the fear that people have when they are facing something that can’t be predicted in terms of the outcome. You don’t know how it’s going to ultimately come out.”
I had the privilege of moderating a San Antonio Cancer Council luncheon event at which Henrich and his son John, a Dallas attorney, shared the emotional journey they experienced in the course of a life-saving bone marrow transplant from son to father.
As UT Health San Antonio’s president since 2009, Henrich has led efforts to conceive and build San Antonio’s first dedicated cancer research and treatment hospital, a $430 million project now under construction and set to open in summer 2024.
While two of San Antonio’s most important leaders successfully sought treatment in Houston, future cancer patients in San Antonio will now have in-patient cancer treatment available here.
Physicians like Schlesinger and Henrich have learned firsthand how important that can be for cancer patients and their families.
UT Health San Antonio and Texas Biomedical Research Institute are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.