“I'm not the warm and fuzzy type.”
Diana Londoño, M.D.
, one of City of Hope's newest surgical urologists, is trying, with typical self-effacement, to describe her personality.
Everyone around her knows better.
“Yeah, she's direct. She'll tell you exactly what she thinks,” said Meena Said, M.D., a colleague who's been friends with Londoño since their residency days a decade ago. “But her depth of feeling is incredible.”
“In our second year,” recalled Said, “we're pulling 80-hour weeks, we're exhausted all the time, we don't get very attached to patients. And I'm watching Diana in the ICU, sitting with an elderly man as he's taking his last breaths. He passes, and Diana starts to cry. Just ... crying. I've never seen any other resident do that.”
Patients like what they see, too.
“She's sweet and caring,” said Michael Klein, a bladder cancer survivor diagnosed and treated by Londoño when she worked in Miami. “She calls me all the time, just to see how I'm doing! What other doctor does that these days?”
Londoño smiles when the praise is read back to her.
“I'm just doing my job,” she said.
It's much more than that.
Born in Mexico City, Londoño was 12 when her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Southern California. Despite her very limited English, she excelled at school. In college, she was drawn to a number of leadership activities and seriously considered politics as a possible career. Medicine was not on her list.
Then, on a trip back to Mexico to visit her father, everything changed.
“My father was a very good looking, proud and vain man,” she recalled. “Appearances meant a great deal to him; he had photographs all over the house. And he was a real product of the Latino 'manliness' culture. He'd never admit he wasn't feeling well or anything was wrong.”
But something was very wrong. When he met her at the airport, he was in a wheelchair.
“He was thin, pale and paralyzed from the waist down. He was in diapers. He needed 'round the clock care.”
Diana's father was dying of untreated metastatic prostate cancer. He'd been too proud and embarrassed to seek a doctor's care. In two months, he'd be gone.
It was that shocking, life-altering event that motivated Londoño to enter UCLA medical school, to help others like her dad and, above all, “to make sure and keep in mind a patient's dignity during illness. Sometimes as doctors, nurses, we become so automated, busy, that we forget.”
Londoño does not forget. Ever mindful of the sensitive nature of urological ailments, she takes specific, active steps to maintain her patients' dignity at all times, in matters big and small. The memory of her father is never far away.
“I'll never throw a bunch of incomprehensible techno-babble at a patient,” she said. “It's rude. I make sure they understand everything, regardless of their education level. I'm always thinking, 'Is this the way my dad or my brother would want to be treated?'”
Language barriers can also marginalize patients, threaten their dignity and compromise their care, a reality Londoño observed in medical school when she'd volunteer as a translator. Today her fluent Spanish comes in handy, both on the job and in the many appearances she makes on Spanish language television, to talk frankly about men's urological issues.
Other paths to marginalization? Poverty and cultural differences.
“People with financial means can have access to any excellent doctor,” she said, “but there are other patients who may not have this luxury. It is important to be a good doctor to them, too.”
If a patient's cultural background moves him to seek “alternative” treatments rather than conventional medicine, here too, Londoño shows respect.
“I won't dismiss it. I'll give them the best possible care, but I'll also let them go ahead and try other things, so long as they're not dangerous.”
Surprisingly, one thing she doesn't much worry about is the gender difference. More than 90 percent of all urologists are men. But Londoño believes being female works to her advantage.
“A lot of men deliberately go looking for a woman doctor,” she pointed out, “because it's difficult for them to talk about intimate situations with another man. They're afraid of appearing weak. They want someone they can open up to, someone sympathetic who will really listen to them!”
Nevertheless, a few patients are uneasy at first, but Londoño adeptly calms them by speaking gently, paying attention and tossing in a dash of humor.
Her patients invariably love her not just for her demeanor, but for her perceptiveness.
“My internist thought I had kidney stones,” said bladder cancer
patient Klein, who suffered for two years before meeting Londoño at Mercy Hospital in Miami. In short order, she detected the tumors and performed the surgery to remove them.
“She explained everything,” Klein said, “including the effects on sexual function. And she was right!”
Three years later, Klein remains healthy and cancer-free.
“She saved my life,” he said, adding that he now flies cross-country regularly to see Londoño at City of Hope for follow-up visits. “Why would I not follow her?” he asked. “I don't trust anyone else!”
The trust has evolved into deep friendship. In a corner of the Londoño home, there's a beautiful rocking chair, a gift from the Klein family when Londoño's daughter was born.
Friendship also played a role in bringing Londoño to City of Hope.
“Quite frankly, I encouraged Diana to come back to Los Angeles,” explained Said, a fellow surgeon who practices in Santa Monica, California. “We're very close and I missed her.”
In fact, Said was already working the phones, reaching out to City of Hope colleagues. “She helped me get the job,” recalls Londoño, “Even without my asking her.”
Not that Londoño needed any help.
“I don't think Diana is fully aware of just how smart she really is,” said Said admiringly. “She doesn't project it. She's very quiet.
“But she has great surgical skills. She's fiercely honest. And when it comes to compassion she stands above all others. What you see is what you get!”