Alum Spotlight: Dwight Fitch
Making a Connection
It was out on the golf course, on the second hole, around 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, when Dwight Fitch (Mich. ’97) decided to start paying attention to people.
"It struck me that I’m out here actually working," he recalls of his caddie days at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich. "This guy was out here playing games. I liked what he was doing better. So I decided to figure out how he got there."
From that moment, he made it a priority to learn how to become successful, to study people’s mannerisms, body language and character. And the golf course, with its colorful characters, was the perfect place to start.
The skills he cultivated in those early years paid off. Fitch is now a radiation oncologist at 21st Century Oncology in Bradenton, Fla., working tirelessly to better the lives of his patients, many of whom are on the verge of death. He helps some by using the most advanced radiation techniques available in the country; others are helped by simple empathy and compassion.
Fitch’s own path to success began the day his aunt picked him up from school and said she was taking him to caddie training at the country club. Fitch, who grew up in Detroit, had never heard of such a thing. "I thought they had horses there," he says.
But it was that job, and ultimate exposure to people who could afford to play golf in the middle of the week, that taught Fitch some of his most valuable life lessons.
"I started paying attention to people," he says. "I figured out how to talk to them, how to read their body language and facial expressions. I figured out who wanted to talk and who didn’t, and when to stop talking. I figured out what people wanted to hear. Those lessons followed me to this day."
Fitch earned the Evans Scholarship to the University of Michigan and graduated with an engineering degree. Then he decided to head to medical school at Michigan. "I loved learning," he says. "That was the one thing no one could ever take from me."
During clinical rotations, he formed a close bond with an older man who had advanced lymphoma. "I was the first person to actually explain things to him in terms he could understand," he says. "That feeling I got working with that patient is what pushed me toward oncology."
These days, Fitch is often a last resort for the most severe cancer patients. He first must determine if radiation, which uses high-energy X-rays to try to shrink and kill the tumors, is the right treatment for them. If so, he creates a plan, figuring out how much radiation is needed and how it should be delivered. All the while, he’s paying attention to each patient’s emotional needs. "I can get an idea from their body language and expressions if they are upset, nervous, anxious or comfortable," he says. "That makes it easier to give each patient what they need to feel better."
Though his field’s technology has improved dramatically in the past decade, it can’t save everyone. And one of the hardest parts of his job is telling people that. "If they’re very sick, sometimes the best treatment is no treatment," he says. "That’s the toughest part, telling someone I can’t do anything for them."
Unfortunately, it’s something he must do a few times a week. But his job isn’t just to cure; it’s also to try to provide the best life possible for the time the patient has left. "Sometimes improving quality of life is the goal," he says. "Sometimes just listening or helping someone to cope or accept the inevitable is also helping."
The keys to connecting with patients, according to Fitch — he talks to them, not at or above them. He’s empathetic and compassionate and treats them not as a disease, but as a patient. "That is conveyed in your eyes, your body language and how you speak to them," he says. And he takes the time to explain things in a way they can understand, "the one thing they appreciate the most."
But it can be a challenge trying to maintain an emotional balance. "You have to be compassionate for Ms. Smith, and a little bit of you goes with her when she dies," he says. "But you have to have enough emotional energy left to treat Ms. Jones. That’s where I try to be. You celebrate the wins and you carry those who have passed away inside your heart, knowing you did the best you could at the end of each day."
Because of his job, Fitch sees each day as a gift. "Everybody’s time is limited," he says. "I live life as best I can. I try to put out good energy."
And every once in a great while, Fitch gets to enjoy an escape from the heavy emotion of his job — in the middle of the week. "There’s times I’ve been out on the golf course, like when I’m on vacation," he says. "And I’ll play and say, ‘Yeah. This is good.’"-First printed in the Summer 2010 Mac Report