On his first day of retirement, Dr. Saul Rivkin reported for duty at 5:30 in the morning — just like he did every day as an oncologist. The difference was where he showed up: the offices of The Marsha Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer Research, which he founded in memory of his wife, who died of the illness.
Rivkin retired this month at age 77 from clinical practice at Swedish Medical Center to continue his work at the research center. As a beloved physician, he touched the lives of hundreds of patients and their families. As a researcher, he helped make Swedish into a hub for clinical cancer research. He can rattle off a long, unpronounceable list of new cancer drugs as smoothly as the jokes he cracks to ease distraught patients.
“I doubt you can find a more dedicated oncologist in this town,” said Anna Gottlieb, founder of Gilda’s Club Seattle, a community organization for those living with cancer.
“I actually felt like a lost lamb,” Kimberly Dirksen, a former patient, said about hearing of Rivkin’s retirement. “I know I will be under good care whomever I see, but he is a hard man to replace.”
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Rivkin was known for a complete dedication to his patients.
When Lizzie Lee had an appointment, she would camp out with books, snacks and a blanket in the waiting room because she knew she had several hours to wait. But she didn’t mind. Appointments always ran long because he devoted as much time as necessary to each patient, asking after their every symptom and concern.
“I happily and patiently waited. … Dr. Rivkin had all the time in the world for his patients,” Lee wrote in a testimonial, one of dozens that poured in when his office announced he was retiring.
Patients and colleagues alike wondered when Rivkin slept. “He’d be doing rounds as early as 6 and stay past midnight. Sometimes all night,” said Patra Grevstad, who first began working with him as a nurse 24 years ago.
A caricature of Rivkin at the center shows him racing toward “Future Cure” with a stethoscope and his two cellphones. That’s no exaggeration: He was known for carrying out two perfectly cogent conversations at once on his phones.
Rivkin was one of the first doctors to get a cellphone — back when they were huge and antennaed and an object of much derision. He gave his number to every patient. He called them with test results early in the morning and late at night, as soon as results were available, because he understood the terrible uncertainty of waiting.
“I’m a social worker,” said Rivkin, emphasizing the social dimension of his work. Having lost his wife, Marsha Rivkin, to ovarian cancer, he knew the devastation caused by the illness. “My world was turned upside down when my wife died.”
Marsha Rivkin was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 1989. Aggressive treatment and two bone-marrow transplants followed, but she died four years later. His five daughters — the youngest of whom was 12 — organized the first SummeRun in her memory the next year.
That was also the beginning of The Marsha Rivkin Center (MRC), a joint partnership of Swedish and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. MRC, which has three full-time staff members, includes a board of directors, eight scientific advisory board members, assistance from the Swedish Medical Center staff, and dozens of peer grant-review scientists from across the country.
The center has given out $14 million for research into early detection of the “silent killer,” ovarian cancer. It funds individual researchers and pilot studies as well as early ovarian-cancer-detection programs that have enrolled more than 900 women with a family history of the illness. Research funded by the center has identified a new biomarker for ovarian cancer, a chemical that shows up in the blood before symptoms appear.
“Early diagnosis is the way to cure any cancer,” said Rivkin.
Some 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer ever year, and 14,000 women die. But the survival rate for women diagnosed in the early stages is 90 percent.
Unfortunately, a straightforward test is still off in the future. Symptoms for ovarian cancer are vague: fatigue, bloating, nausea, abdominal pain. It was only in 2007 that ovarian-cancer symptoms were indexed and published. As sequencing tumors to look for mutations in DNA becomes easier, Rivkin is optimistic that genetics will herald a breakthrough.
He recalls a time when chemotherapy was not yet standard. His research helped determine how to use chemo for early-stage breast cancer. As a principal investigator for the Southwest Oncology Group, he’s also ensured a grant for clinical trials at Swedish that’s been continuously funded for 36 years. All this research ran parallel to his work as a physician.
In retirement, Rivkin will continue to oversee some clinical trials, but he is devoting his energies to The Marsha Rivkin Center.
On Sunday, he again will be at the annual Swedish SummeRun & Walk for Ovarian Cancer, which has raised $6 million for the MRC to fund ovarian-cancer research. The SummeRun, in its 19th year, now attracts 3,500 participants and volunteers. It also doubles as a Rivkin family reunion — all five of his daughters will be there in memory of their mother.
Rivkin himself has been running around town posting fliers for the event. Throughout the year, he puts on a sandwich board and stakes out other races to promote the SummeRun. He’s as tireless in fundraising for the center as he was with patients.
“The SummeRun is fitting,” said his son-in-law Ben Jacobs. “He’s always on the run.”
Sarah Zhang: 206-464-2195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On twitter @sarahzhang