After leukemia, University doctor gets back to work

Dr. Macaran Baird plans to teach from his experiences as a cancer patient.
University professor and head of the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health Macaran Baird at his office in Weaver-Densford Hall on Tuesday. Dr. Baird recently won a battle with cancer and is back at work.
January 29, 2014

University of Minnesota Medical School professor Dr. Macaran Baird’s experience with leukemia has changed the way he looks at life, teaches and practices medicine.

Baird, or Mac, as his friends call him, grew up outside Rochester and got his degree in medicine at the University.

Baird spent years traveling the country teaching about the relationship between family medicine and family therapy. He has taught courses in family medicine, specializes in chronic illness and has practiced as a family clinician at the University’s Smiley’s Family Medicine Clinic.

But his career changed course when he was sailing on Lake Pepin one weekend in September 2011 and experienced intense pain in his thigh.

After a simple blood test, his doctor told him he had acute lymphocytic leukemia, or cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The disease progresses rapidly and creates immature blood cells that can be fatal.

His colleagues told Baird and his wife that he had a 45 percent chance of dying. Always optimistic, Baird said his first thought was that those odds were better than the odds at Omaha Beach on D-Day, so maybe he would make it.

Dr. David Thorson, a University adjunct professor of family medicine and long-term friend of Baird’s, said his students have told him that they love Baird’s teaching style and how he helps them find their niche in the medical community.

The two met when Baird was a residence counselor at Macalester College and Thorson was a student there.

Baird’s patients at Smiley’s Clinic also enjoy working with him, Thorson said, because he’s a good listener who works to encourage collaboration among health care professionals.

“He understands the social as well as the physical part of medicine,” Thorson said.

Kris Baird, Mac Baird’s wife, said she was happy that she wasn’t working and could spend all of her time with him while he was ill.

She admits that her 44 years of marriage to a doctor were tough at times, because Mac Baird worked almost 80 hours a week.

“At very young, he was very, very busy with his career,” said Baird’s 38-year-old son, Macavan Baird. “He always worked for long hours.”

But all of that work might have saved his life.

To survive his illness, Baird relied on a transplant of stem cells from fetal cord blood in December, followed by almost two months of isolation from others to recover. The cancer weakened his immune system, so he couldn’t see anyone who was potentially contagious.

The University has been working on stem cell and leukemia research for decades. If the University had not led these studies, Baird said, he would have had little chance of surviving.

“There are many layers of irony in this,” he said. “I’m living what I’ve talked about for years. I work in a place that does this pioneering work, and I’m a couple hundred feet from the places I go for treatment.”

Those who worked with Baird during his treatment noted his friendly, chatty nature. Although he understood the medical terminology and implications of treatments, he was cooperative with hospital staff, said his oncologist and friend Dr. Daniel Weisdorf.

“He did exactly what I didn’t expect,” Weisdorf said. “He allowed himself to be a patient. He didn’t in any way manipulate his care or mess around with his treatments.”

When his daughter, Trina-Marie Baird, walked into his hospital room for the first time, she was so shocked by his dependent state that she dropped everything in her hands.

“I knew absolutely nothing about leukemia,” the 34-year-old said. “I went to the Internet and looked up what the heck leukemia was. I had the association with the head shaved and battling for their lives.”

Despite knowing nothing about the disease in the beginning, Trina-Marie Baird worked with her father’s doctors to gain understanding. She ultimately ran her father’s CaringBridge website, which alerted friends and family to his medical status and encouraged support from afar.

The most difficult complication, Baird said, was a heart attack that developed fluid in his lungs and put pressure on his heart. Having had previous heart issues, he feared for his life during the 18 hours of crushing chest pain.

“At one point near morning, I thought, you know, maybe a cardiac arrhythmia wouldn’t be the worst way to go,” he said. “I could just depart, and the pain would stop.”

Either because he decided to relax or the medication kicked in, the pain stopped, and his disease eased from that night on.

Although Baird has recovered, he hasn’t been able to treat patients since September 2012. It’s the longest time he’s been out of practice since he started, and he misses it, he said. He plans to begin again in the next year.

“It’s hard not to be excited for him,” Kris Baird said. “Medicine is his first love.”

In the meantime, Mac Baird has returned to teaching. He has decided to add a new subject to his curriculum: “Overwhelmingly Grateful Syndrome.” Baird invented the syndrome, which he said he contracted while he was ill. He said he hopes it will help students understand patients faced with a life-threatening illness.

In the first few weeks of OGS, he showed symptoms such as intermittent, irregular breathing and a wet pillow.

“I woke up with spontaneous sobs of joy, and they were completely unconscious,” Baird said. “I would kind of swim in that for a while, and then recover and go back to sleep.”

After that, he found that whenever someone would ask him to speak about his experience, he could do nothing but cry. So the next symptom he uses to classify the syndrome is blubbering speech and an inability to communicate.

Lastly, Baird had had a subtle, not clinically problematic heart murmur for years. He renamed it a “human purr,” which he said happens because he’s just happy to be alive — the third telltale sign of OGS.

He said the syndrome doesn’t require any treatment and resolves gradually, but the symptom of gratefulness never goes away.

“I think terminal illness can certainly change people for the better, and that’s the blessing of it all.” Kris Baird said. “But it’s been a heck of year.”

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