Morganna Freeman: Doctor with a Calling

May 4, 2018 | by Abe Rosenberg

Dr. Morganna Freeman | City of Hope Dr. Freeman with Diana, an inspirational young patient from Guatemala
The little girl’s name was Diana. She was 3 years old, and she had AIDS.
Morganna Freeman, D.O., first met Diana, “a handful of joy” with shiny black eyes and ringlets of black hair, in a hospital in Guatemala, where children infected with AIDS from birth slept two or three to a bunk.
A young medical student reached down and lifted Diana out of her crib.
“She put her arms around my neck and didn't let go," she recalled.
That's all it took.
Guatemala changed me. It helped me recognize the human side of medicine. As doctors, it's our duty to use our exceptional skills to alleviate suffering. And if you can show compassion, show someone that she's cared for, it makes all the difference in the world.”
Freeman calls Guatemala a “pivotal experience.” There were others. One, at a rural clinic in Uganda, still gets her emotional.
“There was this young girl who would shake, fall down and pass out,” she remembered. “The other children laughed at her, calling her a 'demon.' The pain on her face spoke to me, even though I didn’t know a word of Swahili. After thinking more, I realized this child had a seizure disorder, so I ran to our makeshift pharmacy and found a single bottle of Dilantin (an anti-seizure medication). I brought it to her and explained that her that her ‘demonic episodes’ were actually seizures, and could be treated just by taking medication … to this day, I haven’t forgotten the look on her face. Pure gratitude. She clasped her hands, laughed and hugged me!”
What struck Freeman was that this patient “knew someone cared. And I learned that giving people your time and thoughtfulness helps them heal.”
Little wonder then that Freeman, a melanoma specialist and the newest member of City of Hope's skin cancer care team, chose to join an institution so renowned for compassionate care. Or that she's about to be honored by the Melanoma Research Foundation with a Humanitarian Award at its annual Miles for Melanoma LA 5k Run on May 19.
“Dr. Freeman is an outstanding advocate for the melanoma community,” said MRF Chief Executive Officer Kyleigh LiPira. “She spends her own time and resources to go above and beyond to help be a voice for melanoma patients.”
“We do this summit in Washington, D.C.,” added MRF Communications Officer Adam Smartt, “where we train melanoma survivors to work as advocates. Usually we get local doctors. But Morganna flies across the country to be with us. And every time she attends, we run overtime, because she stays long after her presentation is done, talking to patients, hearing their stories, answering every last question, being that sympathetic ear.”
Morganna Freeman Morganna Freeman, M.D.
Going above and beyond has been Freeman's style for many years. An early mentor, James Lynch, M.D., assistant dean of admissions at the University of Florida's College of Medicine, met Freeman when she was an incoming resident. Asked for one tidbit that sticks in his mind, he doesn't hesitate:
“All the extra hours she spent in the hospital after others had gone,” he said. 
“She's so outward-focused,” he continued. “There's a maturity there. She gets the humanity of medicine. The compassion. The sense of purpose. I love that young doctor. She's wonderful!”
She was very young when the thought of becoming a physician first entered her mind. Her mother remembers 6-year-old “Morgy” traipsing around their San Antonio home, doll in hand, proclaiming she was going to be a “baby doctor.” Spurred by an early and persistent dream, Freeman went on to become the first doctor in the Freeman family.
“I thought about cardiology,” Freeman said, “recognizing that women and minorities were a vulnerable population.” She switched to oncology after witnessing a case of ultimate vulnerability: a young African-American breast cancer patient from an underserved community who'd stopped receiving follow-up care after losing her insurance. By the time the woman met Freeman, then a resident on the oncology ward, the cancer had progressed to Stage 4. The unfairness deeply affected Freeman, who resolutely believes “medicine is a service and health care is a right,” and she changed her career focus to cancer care on that very day.
After starting an oncology fellowship, she chose to focus on melanoma, the deadliest, fastest-spreading form of skin cancer. After encountering numerous young and disadvantaged patients, she chose to advocate vigorously for them, partly for personal reasons.
“I used tanning beds,” she confessed. 
As many as 90 percent of all melanomas may be caused by ultraviolet exposure, be it from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds. The World Health Organization puts tanning beds in its highest cancer risk category, yet millions of young women remain unaware of the risks.
Caught early, melanoma has a high survival rate. But once the cancer spreads, those numbers drop dramatically.
“It was hard to meet young people, people my age, facing death because of melanoma,” Freeman said. “This was a crossroads for me.” She now spends a major portion of her time traveling, educating and working with patient advocacy organizations such as AIM at Melanoma and MRF, lobbying for legislation to restrict the use of tanning beds and to allow the use of sunscreens in schools.
And these days, she has better news for her patients, thanks to rapid advances in immunotherapy.
“The cure rate for Stage 4 disease is realizable but still low, about 15 to 20 percent,” she lamented. “But we've come a very long way, to the point where we're now seeing some patients confident enough to plan their futures. It's amazing, and very gratifying.”
Freeman's excited about her own future at City of Hope, where immunotherapy research is a top priority, and the campus philosophy has a familiar feel: Before moving to Southern California, she served as chief oncology fellow at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida.
“I was trained in the environment of a comprehensive cancer center, and I believe in it,” she said. “There's great value in having all those resources under one roof. It's reassuring to patients. They feel less overwhelmed.”
Her old UF colleague and mentor isn't the least bit surprised by Freeman's newest address. Or her growing advocacy work.
“That's Morganna,” said Lynch. He proudly calls Freeman a kindred spirit and dear friend. 
“It's never about her. I saw it when she was a resident. We connected immediately on everything from the state of health care to the art and science of medicine. I'd have her back here in a heartbeat if I could.
“City of Hope is blessed to have her."
***
 
Freeman will be participating in the Melanoma Research Foundation’s Miles for Melanoma 5K on
Saturday, May 19, at Woodley Park in Van Nuys, California. Freeman will be accepting the Humanitarian Award at the event and join participants at the City of Hope booth for meet and greet. 
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