Patient-inspired doctor expands horizon

Story developed by University Communications.

D r. Amy Amundson Smith, ’93, is a board-certified pediatric hematologist-oncologist with neuro-oncology. She serves as the division chief of the Haley Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and director of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Program—one of the largest pediatric neuro-oncology services in the southeast. 

Dr. Amy Smith
Dr. Amy Smith

Smith traces the start of her journey toward becoming a medical doctor to Dr. Kenneth Saladin, distinguished professor emeritus, at Georgia College & State University.

As a first-year student majoring in biology, she took Saladin’s advice, shifting her career path from teacher to doctor. The strong belief he had in her was just what she needed to get to medical school and beyond.

“Dr. Saladin was the professor who made the biggest difference for me,” said Smith. “When I was about halfway through my first semester, taking anatomy and physiology from him, he met with me to ask if I ever thought about going to medical school. I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘I think you should think about it.’”

That response surprised Smith, because she never considered this possibility.

“My parents were both school teachers, so I thought I’d be a teacher, coach, teach piano lessons or something along those lines,” said Smith. “I never dreamt that medical school would be in my future. So, when he mentioned that to me, it made me feel good. I thought, somebody thinks I’m smart enough to do that.”

She liked the idea of going to medical school.

“So, I went home and told my parents at Christmas,” she said. “I said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to go to medical school.’” 

Dr. Amy Smith shares a smile with Pediatric Neuro-Oncology patient Katie Rose.
Dr. Amy Smith shares a smile with Pediatric Neuro-Oncology patient Katie Rose.

“When I returned to Georgia College to give the graduation address several years ago, I saw Dr. Saladin again, and I told him that story,” Smith said. “He had no recollection of that conversation, which is sweet, because you just never know what you say to people, and how it may impact them. He noticed something in me that made a life-changing impact on me.”

While attending Georgia College, Smith played basketball and piano, practicing a few hours a day with each activity. She had a busy life and still does.

“Georgia College was probably the best preparation for where I am in my life now,” said Smith, who loved the small size of the university.

“It gave me an opportunity to get to know people, professors and administration—people you might not otherwise get a chance to know at a big university,” she said. “It also provided a lot of diversity. You can never discount that wonderful life experience.” 

I look at these little guys and girls, and they’re just incredible people. They really are amazing. To be able to walk with them and help make a better day for them—that’s really exciting. There’s just nothing better than that.
– Dr. Amy Smith

In Smith’s first year at the Medical College of Georgia, she found a professor’s lecture on blood disorders and cancer very inspiring. It built upon basic chemistry research she had done at Georgia College with Dr. Doug Pohl, which got her interested in biology and cancer.

During medical school, Smith was placed on the pediatrics rotation in hematology and oncology. 

“I just fell in love with that,” she said. “I loved the people. I loved the patients. I just kind of felt at home in that area.”

“During one Thanksgiving, my mom reminded me that during med school, I called her and said, ‘Mom, it’s the weirdest thing. When I’m on the oncology floor, I feel like I belong there—I feel like I’m at home,’” Smith said. “I hadn’t realized I said that to her.”

Smith did her residency at the University of Colorado in pediatrics, followed by fellowships in hematology and oncology and neuro-oncology. When she was a second-year resident on the oncology floor, there was a baby who came in with a brain tumor with a massive hemorrhage. That’s when she met Dr. Nicholas Foreman, a pediatric neuro-oncologist.

“He let me go into the operating room, view the scans and pathology samples,” Smith said. “He talked to me about all of it. There was so much not known about brain tumors at that time that it was largely an unchartered territory. I was inspired, because it was like trying to put puzzle pieces together or doing an investigation to try and figure out areas that hadn’t really been discovered previously. After 28 years, he’s still my mentor and now friend.” 

Dr. Amy Smith at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children's area.
Dr. Amy Smith at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children's area.

Following her residency and fellowships, Smith worked eight years as an assistant professor of Pediatrics and a joint assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery for the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.

Today, Smith leads her team, building programs and implementing quality metrics. She provides clinical and teaching supervision for medical students, residents and fellows, while also overseeing clinical operations, supporting faculty development and performing research.

Smith was also appointed to the Florida Cancer and Research Advisory Council by the governor in 2014—a position she still holds today.

“What I enjoy most is taking care of patients,” Smith said. “I love them and their families and the opportunity to learn from them, educate and talk to them and teach their families how to take care of them. As the physician, I make the plan, but the parents have to carry it out when they’re at home. So, I really enjoy that education piece with the families.”

Smith has built two large brain tumor programs during her career. She credits her team of several physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses and researchers for the success.

“I have incredible co-workers,” she said. “It has been really inspiring and fun to work with them and grow. We’re all working for the same purpose—to take care of these kids and their families. I think there’s an incredible value there.”

Smith also enjoys the clinical aspect of her profession that takes her from the patient to the lab.

“I enjoy the scientific discovery, the intellectual part of clinical research in trying to find new treatments,” she said. “Now, we have a basic science laboratory, so we go to the operating room, collect the tumor tissue, save and grow it in a lab to study.”

Smith wishes the world for her patients.

“The obvious hope is that we would cure them of their cancer. But maybe the less obvious hope, but important one, is I want the children and their families, as they go through the process, to feel safe, well informed and well cared for,” she said. “I want them to feel like they’ve been given every option. That they’re really making the best choice for and with their child. And, if they survive long-term, I want them to have a great quality of life—to be able to go to school and have friends and do the things that we all want to do.”

At the end of the day, it’s the patients and their families, who inspire Smith.

“I look at these little guys and girls, and they’re just incredible people,” she said. “They really are amazing. To be able to walk with them and help make a better day for them—that’s really exciting. There’s just nothing better than that.”