Around the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, Jenny Kim, MD, is a familiar face to patients and families, staff, and up-and-coming health care professionals alike. As director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center and a clinical professor of pediatrics at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, she is a go-to expert for all things hematology; a forward-thinking researcher; a trusted mentor; and an ally to young patients managing hematologic conditions such as sickle cell disease, histiocytic diseases and thalassemia. With September being National Sickle Cell Month, we chatted with Dr. Kim to explore what she loves most about her career path and what led her to it, how sickle cell research is broadening for pediatric patients, her mission to support future generations of health care experts … and her never-ending devotion to America’s Favorite Pastime.
What led you to your career path, both as a pediatrician and as a hematology/oncology specialist?
My father was a pediatrician in a small Southern town for more than 25 years, and he LOVED what he was doing with his life. He cared for “his kids” from birth to adulthood, and then he cared for the next generation of kids. He was my inspiration. When I was in medical training, I discovered that I wanted to practice in a pediatric specialty that had continuity of care but was heavily involved in research clinical trials. Pediatric hem/onc was the perfect career for me.
You’re involved with research and clinical trials for conditions such as sickle cell disease and clotting disorders. What are some of the most promising or innovative things happening in this research area?
I find gene therapy and gene editing research fascinating. These technologies are finally moving through clinical trials for sickle cell disease, thalassemia and hemophilia, and more successfully than ever before. I used to tell families that the only known cure for sickle cell disease was bone marrow transplant, but now I can talk about gene therapy and gene editing clinical trials.
You’re also very active in preparing future medical leaders for their careers. What is most meaningful about this work for you?
I feel like I have touched the lives of hundreds of children and their families in my career so far, just like my father did. When I train medical students, residents and fellows in pediatric hem/onc, I hope I have played a part in their careers healing hundreds of children and their families. It becomes a legacy of healing.
Since beginning your career, what do you feel has changed or advanced the most for pediatric patients with hematologic conditions?
Most of the cutting-edge research has historically targeted adults and adult conditions, and then the results and treatments were just extrapolated to kids. Now, I’m seeing more research that is starting with pediatric diseases or is quick to include children in clinical trials so new drugs are actually FDA-approved for children. Examples include hydroxyurea (not a new drug, but new for babies), oral iron chelators, Endari glutamine for sickle cell disease and bone marrow transplant protocols. Gene therapy and gene editing trials are including pediatric-aged patients earlier.
What is your favorite thing about your career?
I have some kids I have cared for since they were newborns — for example, babies diagnosed with sickle cell disease during their newborn screens — and now I’m preparing them for transition to adult care. I have seen their parents through the shock of finding out their baby has sickle cell disease, and through admissions to the Hospital for pain or fevers or gallstones and intensive care for severe acute chest syndrome. These are my kids. I love the continuity of care.
It’s no secret around the Hospital that you’re a major Padres fan (and a baseball lover in general). Which players would you add to your fantasy baseball roster?
I love the Padres. They do so much to support our hem/onc program, such as research funding through the Padres Foundation and Pedal the Cause, experiences that include player visits to the Hospital, Celebration of Champions, a patients’ group trip to Spring Training and Make-a-Wish activities. I don’t really do fantasy baseball, but my favorite players (right now) are Tatis Jr., Hosmer, Greg Garcia, Strahm and Yates. If you see me at work on Fridays, I will most likely be sporting my brown jersey.
You have an unlimited budget to plan your dream vacation. Where are you going, and what are you doing while you’re there?
A foodie tour through Southeast Asia (yum!). Or a trip down through South Africa and then across to Antarctica to see penguins.
If you could only listen to five bands or artists for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
George Michael, The Beatles, Imagine Dragons, Taylor Swift, Indigo Girls.
What is your animal alter ego and why?
My best friend and partner in crime at work said without a doubt it’s the Cheshire Cat. I’m not sure if it’s because I smile a lot and when I leave a room, I leave my smile behind? Or my smile is so big that it looks like I’m up to something? 😁
Who is your role model and why?
Michelle Obama. She’s smart. She’s powerful and uses her influence to bring about social change. She’s fit and fabulous. And she can hold her own against the most powerful men in the world.