Written by Lisa Hanchey

Wednesday, october 06, 2010

Four-year-old Landon Meyerholtz was a big kid for his age and very active. So when his mom, Dana Judice, noticed that he was no longer playing as hard and looked pale, she brought Landon to his pediatrician in Centerville. The pediatrician immediately referred him to Dr. Ammar Morad, a Lafayette pediatric hematologist/oncologist. Morad was willing to see Landon immediately, and they drove the 50-mile journey to Lafayette, where they were calmly reassured by the specialist. “He just said, ‘Ok. This is what I think it is, and this is what we’re going to do about it,” Judice says.

Test results confirmed Morad’s initial diagnosis — that Landon had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and Landon had a Medi-port inserted for chemotherapy. “There was never any doubt in [Morad’s] voice that things wouldn’t work out perfectly — he knew,” Judice recalls. “He had all the confidence in the world. And so, we had all the confidence.”

Judice asked the obvious questions, “Should we go somewhere else? Should we go to St. Jude’s? Should we go to M.D. Anderson?” Morad responded, “You can if you want, but they are going to do the exact same thing that we do here.”

At the time of Landon’s diagnosis, Judice also had a 2-month-old baby, an 8-year-old son and an 8-year-old stepson. “It would have been horrible for all of our family to have had to relocate, because I probably would have had to go with Landon and stay,” Judice says. “This way, most days, when he goes in for treatments, we are home in time to get the other kids from school.”

As Landon underwent treatment, Morad took the time to painstakingly explain the procedures to each of Landon’s family members. “He had so much patience with us, and he’s so good with Landon,” Judice says, choking back tears. “Everybody just loves him.”

Hailing from Damascus, Syria, Morad grew up in a family of physicians. His grandfather, a general practitioner, and two of his uncles — one a chief of urology and the other an anesthesiologist — practiced in Syria. His two sisters are also in the medical field: one a nephrologist practicing in Washington, D.C., and the youngest a dentist in San Francisco. While his elders received their training in Europe, Morad’s contemporaries were more interested in the U.S. “The medical field is a lot more advanced here than in Europe,” he observes. “So, when my group of classmates was looking for higher education, we came to the U.S.”

Morad arrived in Milwaukee in 1983, completing his three-year pediatric residency in 1986, followed by a three-year fellowship in childhood cancer at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. For the past 22 years, has practiced strictly pediatric hematology and oncology.

“In 1986, when pediatric oncology was still in some early primitive phases, I saw that there were cures,” he explains. “And, I was surrounded by some very good physicians who were sort of pioneering what we do now. I saw that they were doing something that was magical. When people came, they were very sick, and the doctors got them out of their illness and into remission. So, I saw that this was a new field, and I was intrigued by the research that was happening. And, I decided this was the best time to get on the bandwagon.”

After completing his fellowship in 1993, Morad remained at Texas Children’s Hospital as an assistant professor until 1997. He stayed in academia, becoming an assistant professor at Texas Tech University for three years. In 2000, he started a private practice in Dallas, where he treated pediatric patients for seven years.

In 2006, Women’s & Children’s Hospital, now part of the Regional Medical Center of Acadiana, recruited Morad to join its new pediatric subspecialties facility, the Kids Specialty Center. Prior to that, the center had two pediatric oncologists who traveled to Lafayette from Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, but they did not return after Hurricane Katrina. “Lafayette was an area that was starting to develop medically, had very little access to pediatric subspecialties in general, and definitely no pediatric oncology,” he recalls.

Morad joined the Kids Specialty Center in August 2007. His practice consists of “two specialties in one” — hematology, comprising benign blood disorders like sickle cell disease, hemophilia, anemia and other bleeding disorders; and oncology, covering childhood cancers. Morad works with a nurse to provide one-on-one treatment to patients. Once a month, he travels to clinics in Alexandria and Lake Charles. The next closest pediatric oncologists are located in Shreveport and New Orleans. “We are well positioned to service an entire region that has close to 1.1 million in population and 300,000 children under the age of 18 who have no access to any care,” he observes. “And now, they do, because of this operation that we have.”

Morad, along with pediatric surgeon Kenneth Falterman, radiation oncologist M. Maitland Deland and neurosurgeon Darric Baty of the Kids Specialty Center, offers the same treatment modalities for pediatric cancer care as those found in big-city facilities. Morad’s role is to coordinate the entire care, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. “The advantage that we have in pediatric oncology is that all of the pediatric oncologists, no matter where they are, belong to one group called the Children’s Oncology Group,” he explains. “And, that’s why the treatment that is available locally here is the same one that you will find in Houston and San Francisco. No longer does a child from a town like Lafayette go on a mediocre or suboptimal treatment protocol. You have the very same care, yet you have it close by without enduring the hardship of traveling with the distance and the complications, and then seeing multiple providers.

We call it ‘big-city care, small-town hospitality.’” 

Over the last three years, Morad has treated 30 patients under the age of 18. Statistics show a 95 percent cure rate in these children. “I don’t think there is any center in the country that can show that its numbers are any higher than that,” he says. “This is a testimony that we really have a full team, and we really do have access to the latest and the newest clinical trials and protocols, with the advantage of patients not having to leave the local communities, families not having not to be destructed and wages and jobs not being lost.”

As for now 6-year-old Landon, his prognosis is “excellent.” After three weeks of heavy chemotherapy, he was technically considered to be in remission. In March 2009 he started the maintenance phase of his treatment, taking chemo nightly by mouth and antibiotics each weekend. Every fourth Monday, he goes into the doctor’s office to have a different chemo inserted into his port, and has a spinal tap every 12 weeks. He’s lost his hair and some strength in his legs, but he is on schedule to take his last treatment in November 2011.

“He handles it, because Dr. Morad is so laid back,” Judice says. “It’s just part of his life, and part of our lives.”