Little Abigail had a rare type of tumor with a big name: rhabdomyosarcoma.

The malignant tumor had begun to form in the infant’s muscle tissue, growing into a lump and pushing out from her tiny uterus. Her mother had noticed it during a diaper change.

A young pediatric oncology fellow, Sharon Smith, MD, had the infant in her care.

“I was training as a fellow … at that time, learning about pediatric oncology,” said Dr. Smith, now in pediatric hematology-oncology at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “When we saw baby Abigail, we had a lot of discussions to coordinate care.

“We wanted to avoid radiation,” Dr. Smith said. “And we were successful in doing so. After surgery to remove the tumor, she did well on a year of chemotherapy alone.”

Years went by. About 28, in fact.

The baby’s mother never forgot the life-saving treatment her little Abigail received. Every Christmas, she would send Dr. Smith a greeting card—a reminder of a mother’s eternal thanks.

Chance encounter

“I was too young to remember what happened—only 13 months,” Abigail said. “Yet the experience, the stories my mother told me as I grew up, never left me.”

Abigail Wolfe, now Abigail Wenzlick, MD, is today a second-year resident at Spectrum Health.

The same hospital where Dr. Smith now works.

“I was working alongside Dr. Smith as a med student,” Dr. Wenzlick said. “Smith is a common name, but I had a feeling. I started asking questions.”

And then the a-ha moment.

The two soon realized their connection from the past.

“Oh, there were hugs,” Dr. Wenzlick laughed. “Lots of hugs. And I got to hear my story from a different perspective.”

Dr. Smith smiled.

“Well, it made me feel a bit old at first, to meet again after so long, but then it felt good,” Dr. Smith said. “Now we see each other regularly at meetings while Abbey is on rotation, six months at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, six months at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.”

When Dr. Wenzlick shared the news with her mother, who lives on the east side of Michigan, her mother traveled to Spectrum Health to have coffee with Dr. Smith.

She had never forgotten.

“Mom often would say how she had wished back then she could ask me how I felt,” Dr. Wenzlick said. “But of course, she couldn’t. I only have memories of the yearly follow-up appointments. I went through those until age 26 and all tests have come back clean.”

A lesson carried forward

Dr. Wenzlick also recalled stories about her mother “stealing” her patient charts to take notes and then researching what she found, to return to her infant daughter’s doctors to ask educated questions.

“Now, as an adult and as a resident, I can appreciate what my mother went through,” Dr. Wenzlick said. “And I can also appreciate the importance and complexity of the relationships between physicians and patients. The entire experience definitely led to my career choice.”

Dr. Wenzlick has chosen to pursue a career as a primary care physician.

“As a primary care physician you are the captain of care for your patient, the champion they need, coordinating a great medical team,” she said.

When the time came to interview for residency positions, Dr. Wenzlick—along with her husband, Tom Wenzlick, MD, in orthopedic surgery at Spectrum Health—said they had the opportunity to interview all across the country.

They chose to pursue their residency at Spectrum Health not just to stay closer to home, but also because of the excellence in mentorship. It seemed almost fate to find Dr. Smith among the mentors.

“As a child, it seemed like that story was all about me,” Dr. Wenzlick said. “The physician was the person who came in to save the day.

“Now I understand the physician’s perspective and how we work with so many patients,” she said. “I will play a part of that story for each of my patients. I consider that my work.”