When intense summer heat causes the asphalt to soften and emit a pale rainbow petroleum shimmer while the humidity level is just this side of unbearable, the sight of a large body of water is tantamount to an invitation to take a refreshing plunge. For Mack Barnes, MD, a specialist in gynecologic oncology with Alabama Oncology, a quiet lake south of Birmingham summons images of relaxation and decompression, no matter the time of year.
Barnes and his wife, Nicky, grew up around water and wanted their four sons to be exposed to aqua adventures from an early age.
"My wife found our lake house on a small lake near Columbiana, which means it has been very accessible around call schedules," Barnes said. "It has served as a great retreat. Our children spent a lot of summers at the lake learning to ski and fish. It also provides a nice venue in the fall for all of us to gather for college football games.
"When you get home, and you have four boys, you change gears and take your mind off work and get involved in their activities with them," Barnes said. "My time with family dominates my non-professional life. It's always an adventure with my sons."
Barnes's career has spanned the gamut from educating and lecturing to private practice to his current position with Alabama Oncology Group, the largest, private provider of cancer care services in Alabama.
Barnes' wife is accustomed to the long hours that come with a commitment to the medical profession and she treasures the proximity of the lake house -- particularly during the three years he was in practice by himself, which required him making rounds every day.
"We are very fortunate that our lake is only 45 minutes away which allows us to get there pretty frequently, even during the years when our boys had multiple weekend sports activities," she said. "The lake was his one place he could go to get away for those years (in private practice). It was his haven and still is. We are able to be together as a family in the most 'whole way,' uninterrupted and unadulterated. It's our happy place."
Barnes' late father, a neurosurgeon, undoubtedly influenced his life as a young man and continues to be a guiding example every day. Growing up in Memphis, he often rounded with his dad on weekends, experiencing firsthand the interaction between physician and patients in the hospital. He also spent time during summers shadowing his father in his office.
"My father instilled in me the responsibility of taking care of others and the satisfaction that came with restoring their health," Barnes said. It's a lesson Barnes has taken to heart based on his patients' high regard for their physician --he is known among his peers and patients for the caring approach he takes in battling right alongside those in the war against cancer.
"I love what I do," Barnes said. "It's a blessing to be able to go to work every day. I really enjoy being in surgery or in the office with the time I get to spend with patients. I view what I do as a service to the patient, and the joy I get out of it is transmitted to them. We both get something important out of the relationship."
Initially intent on following in his father's footsteps as a neurologist, during Barnes' third year of medical school, he took on his ob/gyn rotation first simply to get it behind him to allow him to move on to other aspects of medicine. That's when his plans changed.
"I didn't even know gynecologic oncology existed when I went to medical school," Barnes said. "When I did my first rotation, I loved it. Later, my dad ended up dying of lymphoma, and I gravitated back to it. Everything just came together.
Barnes' father was diagnosed with lymphoma when Barnes was in his freshman year in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He died a few years later.
"Having the experience of losing someone to cancer, either consciously or unconsciously, influences how I deal with patients who have cancer," Barnes said. "My current specialty allows me to use the talents I have to make a difference through the surgical treatment of gynecologic cancers. In some way, I feel I am giving back to those affected with the disease that killed my father. The patients I have the opportunity to work with are extraordinary, as are the exceptional physicians and staff of Alabama Oncology. It is a privilege to work in a setting that offers such a sophisticated level of care."
Patients who have already been diagnosed with cancer of the uterus know they have the disease and are ready to begin mapping out a treatment strategy. The greatest anxiety is experienced by patients who come in without a confirmed diagnosis.
"For someone who has an enlarged ovary that may or may not be cancer, there's more physiological anxiety about the unknown," Barnes said. "A lot of the conversation is about what-if, and I go through that with them and eventually we get to the certainty of what it is. It's therapeutic to know what the problem is and what we're going to do."
Barnes speaks in a manner that makes him a partner in that process, a true caregiver rather than someone who simply writes orders and administers treatments. It's very much a "we" approach.
"From the beginning, we want to address the what-if possibilities, but we also want to be sensitive to the uncertainties these patients are encountering with their families. I've found that patients appreciate honesty -- as hard as it is to hear sometimes, knowing the full truth makes things better. You give the patient this information as early as possible so they can be part of the decision making. It's critically important that's what happens first."
Barnes says the role of physicians has evolved overtime, making changes for the better.
"Hopefully we've gone 180 degrees away from the time when a person in a white coat walks in and says, 'Here's what you're going to do,' and walks out," he said. "My job in that regard is to recommend what is the best treatment based on national guidelines and studies, but also to look at what's good for them."
Barnes has now been in practice with Alabama Oncology for five years and spent 15 years with UAB in roles most often in academia.
"I had a great experience at UAB and great mentors that enabled me to enjoy that side of medicine," Barnes said. "I enjoyed teaching, research, and working with residents while in the academic side of medicine, but I've always loved patient car. When I learned Alabama Oncology wanted to branch out and have a gynecologist in the group, it worked out well. It was a great opportunity."
He says like most oncologists, he views his role as embarking on a journey with patients and is committed to going with them every step of the way.
"That's important to me after going through what we did with the cancer my dad had," Barnes said. "As oncologists, our job is not just doing surgery and chemotherapy, but medical care and personal care when the patients make the decision that it's time to quit doing chemotherapy and surgeries and turn more to pain control. That's our role, too."
Barnes said his commitment to the patients and profession really comes home to him when he sees a patient outside the office setting, whether at a fundraiser to fight cancer or if he runs into them in the local grocery store.
"When you see patients who have finished or are undergoing treatment, and you see that you are making a difference and extending their life and hope for a cure, it's a great feeling," he said. "You see people living their lives. We're all going to pass from something. If we can impact how someone is living their life, in addition to quality of life, and do that in a positive way, that's pretty cool."