Karen Ballen, MD
Karen Ballen, MD, an international expert in stem cell transplantation, particularly for patients who have a difficult time finding a donor, was born and reared in the Bronx in a family that encouraged academic and professional pursuits. “My grandfather was an old-fashioned pediatrician who made house calls, and my father was a cardiologist, one of the founders of the first coronary care units in New York City at Mount Sinai. He spent his entire career there and just loved what he did. My mother was a lawyer who specialized in adoption law. It was an encouraging environment. Even though my mother was a hard-working lawyer, she was always there for my field hockey games or cross-country meets,” shared Dr. Ballen.
Brief Rebellion, Then Reality Check
Early on, Dr. Ballen liked the sciences and admired her father’s passion for medicine. However, his demanding hours, working 7 days a week, concerned her, so becoming a doctor was not her first career choice. “During high school, I went through a rebellious phase in which I decided that college wasn’t for me. As it turned out, rebellion gave way to common sense, and I ended up going to Harvard University, where I majored in English History and Literature. Although I wrote my thesis on Jane Austin, I also completed my premed requirements. I met my husband, John Ballen, while at Harvard, and we married 5 years later. He has been a great life partner for 33 years. John worked in the finance industry but is now involved in a not-for-profit organization, Core Knowledge, which focuses on access to primary care education,” said Dr. Ballen.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard, Dr. Ballen went to Dartmouth Medical School, in Hanover, New Hampshire, a rural town along the Connecticut River. “Dartmouth was a bit of a culture change having grown up in New York City and having gone to college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But I had a great mentor there, an oncologist named Joe O’Donnell, MD, who treated the patient as a whole person and shared his vision of patient-centered care. He was largely the reason I went into internal medicine and hematology/oncology,” Dr. Ballen continued.
After receiving her medical degree from Dartmouth, Dr. Ballen entered an internal medicine residency program at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and followed that with a hematology/oncology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; in fellowship, she met another valuable mentor, Joseph Antin, MD, Chief, Medical Oncology Stem Cell Transplantation Program. “Dr. Antin trained an entire generation of transplant physicians. He’s a fantastic clinical investigator and an all-around wonderful person. I really learned a lot from Joe, and his mentorship spurred my interest in transplantation.”
A Calling to Transplantation
“After completing my fellowship,” said Dr. Ballen, “I stayed on at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where I worked in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Handin, studying megakaryocyte biology. After a few years in the lab, I realized it wasn’t my true calling, so I moved to the University of Massachusetts to direct a new transplant program. I was only in my mid-30s, but we had a great group of young doctors and nurses to help me set up the program. My mentors there were Peter Quesenberry, MD, and Marc Stewart, MD, who really generated my excitement and interest in umbilical cord blood. That’s when we set up our first umbilical cord blood bank, later in affiliation with the American Red Cross.”
“In oncology, you care for the whole patient, and there are special long-term relationships that few other medical fields offer.”— Karen Ballen, MD
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Dr. Ballen noted that her early years at the University of Massachusetts stimulated her interest in using cord blood as an alternative donor source. “Those were the years where we were somewhat learning on the fly about cord blood, how to collect the cells, what regulatory aspects we needed, and what procedures were needed to eventually use the cells for transplant.”
It was during this exciting period that Dr. Ballen assumed the directorship of the first leukemia program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “At Mass General, I had two great mentors. First there was Tom Spitzer, MD, who directed the transplant program, always put the patient first, and was incredibly loyal to his team. Plus, he had a wonderfully calming manner, which I have tried to emulate, although unsuccessfully at times. Then there was Dave Scadden, MD, who led the hematologic malignancies department. He was a superb scientist who had infinite curiosity and a love for research. He also showed through example how you could balance a high-level, busy career with an energetic, fun life outside of work,” Dr. Ballen shared.
Time for a Change
After 14 fruitful years at Mass General, Dr. Ballen decided it was time for a change. “My youngest child was graduating from high school, and since my husband worked remotely, if we were going to move on, it would be the right time. So, I began looking at positions where I’d have more of a leadership role and better opportunities to mentor junior faculty. I was very fortunate to be recruited to the Cancer Center at the University of Virginia (UVa). It’s a fantastic program that is growing, so I jumped at the chance to serve as Director of the Transplant Program and Section Chief for Hematology and Hematologic Malignancy. I have two terrific mentors, Mike Williams, MD, who is Chief of the Hematology/Oncology Division, and a world-renowned lymphoma specialist. Mike is dedicated to UVa, having spent his whole career at UVa, and has great enthusiasm for patient care, his faculty and the Cancer Center. My other mentor is Tom Loughran, MD, Director of the UVa Cancer Center. Tom is an accomplished leader, a world-class leukemia researcher, and an expert at creating new models for drug development,” said Dr. Ballen.
Along with clinical research, Dr. Ballen is involved in several programs looking into ways to improve access to transplant care in Virginia. “It’s been a whirlwind of exciting new projects since I joined UVa in 2017. And we are applying to the National Cancer Institute for Comprehensive Cancer Center status, so things are really moving along,” said Dr. Ballen.
A Day in the Life
Asked to encapsulate a day at UVa, Dr. Ballen responded: “I walk to work every day with my husband, which is our quality time together. I have clinic 2 days a week, each day running from about 7:00 AM to 5:30 PM, so it’s a long day. We all take call on our inpatient service. The other days are spent on research, administration, and mentoring. I have taken a new role this year as Associate Division Chief, and I have started a new mentoring program. Mentoring is a great passion for me, and it’s so exciting to see others build their careers.”
“I would advise students thinking about oncology to spend some time on an outpatient rotation and not to get too focused on all the drugs, because they change rapidly with new advances out of the lab.”— Karen Ballen, MD
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Dr. Ballen noted that young medical students who rotate on the inpatient oncology ward see the patients with cancer who aren’t doing well, which can provide a skewed impression about the field. “I would advise students thinking about oncology to spend some time on an outpatient rotation and not to get too focused on all the drugs, because they change rapidly with new advances out of the lab. Instead, it’s important for them to understand in oncology you care for the whole patient, and there are special long-term relationships that few other medical fields offer. It’s also a field in which the science is directly related to the clinic.”
What does a busy transplantation specialist do to decompress from a demanding career? “I have three children: Jennifer, who works in corporate sustainability; Katie, who works in special education for high school students; and Kevin, who’s a sophomore in college and actually started his own not-for-profit. In addition to quality family time, John and I get a lot of satisfaction from performing community service, something we want to pass to our children.
However, my personal way to de-stress is hiking. Katie and I have hiked Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and we’re now busy hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Our goal is to complete the 500-mile trek in various segments. I also take ballet classes and read every night, which takes me to faraway lands.” ■
DISCLOSURE: Dr. Ballen reported no conflicts of interest.