Top: (From left) UCLA track-and-field athlete and volunteer Jacob Wood helps to support patient Lyndsay Lucas with Dr. Noah Federman and Lyndsay’s sister Emily Lucas.
Middle: Dr. Noah Federman (standing) instructs his young patients in proper paddle technique before they take to the water.
Bottom: “I was excited to go surfing,” says Carleigh Williams, who joyfully caught a wave at the patient surf event.
One sunny morning on the sand at Venice beach, Noah Federman, MD (RES '05, FEL '08) traded his white coat for a wet suit. With him were a stack of surfboards and more than a dozen of the young sarcoma patients he treats as a pediatric oncologist.
For a day, these teens and young adults left their illness behind and waded into the rolling waves to participate in an activity they normally might be advised against. “In some ways, these kids are my family,” Dr. Federman says. “They are the kids I see when I am away from home. Being with them like this, interacting with them like this, helps to make me a better doctor. They see that I’m not that scary — the guy who only gives them bad news — that I’m a human being, too.”
The surf event in October was the latest of several Teen Adventure Program activities that Dr. Federman has put together over the past four years to instill a sense of confidence and camaraderie and to help meet the unique psychosocial needs of his patients, who occupy that uncomfortable space between pediatric and adult oncology. With help from nurse Marjorie Weiman, social workers, child-life specialists and a member of the UCLA Department of Athletics adaptive-recreation program, the outings have included a ropes challenge, rock-wall climbing, kayaking and wheelchair basketball in Pauley Pavilion.
Often, a barrier exists between physicians — particularly oncologists — and their patients, Dr. Federman acknowledges. “We tend to try to not get too close because we see a lot of death,” he says. But away from the hospital and out on the sand, everyone got a chance to just be who they are and have fun. Indeed, the young patients are determined to learn how to stand on their boards for the first time, and they also take a certain delight in seeing their doctor wipe out in the waves.
“I was excited to go surfing and surprised to see Dr. Federman there,” says Carleigh Williams, 17, who is in remission after suffering from an ovarian germcell tumor. “He surfed a lot and was there encouraging us.” It’s a side to the doctor-patient relationship that Carleigh appreciates. “It’s more than just a job to him,” she says. “He really cares. And he always talks with me like an adult; he has a light way of explaining things that are heavy, but without being super serious.”
Dr. Federman’s interest in medicine started early. When he was just 4 years old, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he already could name all the bones in the human body and would regale his neighbors with questions like, “Which should I eat first, the tibia or the femur?” when eating a chicken leg.
His mother supported his childhood interest, but his father would have preferred that his son follow him into the family business: Russ & Daughters, an upscale specialty foods store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side founded by Dr. Federman’s greatgrandfather in 1914. Dr. Federman worked in the store on weekends and holidays, and “as the oldest son, I was expected to take over the business someday.” Today, his father has come to terms with his son’s choice. In an article in The New York Times, Mark Russ Federman quipped, “As far as I know, I am the only Jewish father who was disappointed that his kid became a doctor. I was thinking sturgeon, not surgeon.”
While an undergraduate at Williams College in Massachusetts, Dr. Federman majored in English and minored in neuroscience. “It is important for a physician to be well-rounded,” he says. “Critical reading and writing helps you in research and also when talking with patients.” He also began volunteering on the ski patrol at Mt. Jiminy in the Berkshire Mountains; the work so captivated him, that he earned a credential in winter emergency medicine. “You had on-the-job experience with everything from torn ACLs to massive myocardial events,” he recalls. “It was life-changing.”
But he wasn’t certain after graduation that he wanted to pursue medicine. He took a job as a flyfishing guide, kept skiing and worked in a liquor store. “After six months, I got it out of my system,” Dr. Federman recalls. “My brain was rotting.” He entered Mount Sinai Medical School in New York.
During his residency in pediatrics at UCLA, he gravitated toward oncology. In particular, he was drawn to the multidisciplinary efforts to fight pediatric bone and soft-tissue sarcomas. After completing a fellowship in 2008, Dr. Federman was appointed as assistant professor and director of the Pediatric Bone and Soft Tissue Sarcoma Program in UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, and he holds joint appointments in the departments of pediatrics and orthopaedics.
His immediate goal as a clinician is to alleviate suffering and save lives; as a researcher, Dr. Federman hopes to discover more effective and less toxic treatments for metastatic sarcomas. Specifically, he is researching new therapeutics that target cancer nanoparticles or compounds that don’t cause unnecessary damage to the body. “My aim is to get better at killing cancer without affecting the entire body — without irreparably damaging the heart muscle, hearing, the kidneys or the bone marrow or causing infertility,” Dr. Federman says. “I think we’re headed in that direction, and in the next decade or so, we will see some major improvement in survival.”
Meanwhile, out on the beach, the teens are having a chance to bond and enjoy the day. After a half-dozen tries, Carleigh is able to get up on her board and surf through a small wave, a huge smile spreading across her face. “It’s so great to see that,” Dr. Federman says. “Some of these kids have conquered the biggest challenge in their lives. After that, everything else is easy for them.”
Marina Dundjerski is a regular contributor to U Magazine.