Getting to know Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D.

A personal insight to our new chair and her family

Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D.

Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D.

Hailing from the Texas Panhandle, Dr. Sancy Leachman grew up in the city of Amarillo. Her family roots there are strong. Both sets of grandparents grew up in Amarillo, and her parents still live there. She describes herself as being “probably the most stereotypical Texan that you have ever met,” which she further clarifies as meaning she’s “almost nationalistic about Texas.”

That she characterizes herself as “nationalistic” is a good example of why “passionate” is an appropriate description of Sancy’s overall personality. Clearly, being nationalistic is being passionate about where you grow up (in her case, Texas). This theme of passion – of giving her all – runs throughout Sancy’s life and may be a good way to think of what will be her approach to being our department’s chair.

Medicine and taking care of creatures has always been a part of Sancy’s life plan. As a child, her love of animals fueled this focus. Growing up she always had pets – she even had a roadrunner once – and this figured into her initial dreams of becoming a vet with a specialization in birds. Over time, that focus changed to one of caring for people. Since her love of people matches her love of animals, she came to feel that her energy and time were best suited for caring for people.

Sancy spent her first year of college at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. Looking for a larger college experience, she transferred to the University of Texas, Austin and was accepted into its Plan II Liberal Arts honors program. Sancy chose the University of Texas Southwestern for medical school and enrolled in the MD, PhD program because she couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted to spend her time caring for patients or researching disease for patients — she decided to have it all and do both. She adds, “I also figured that extra education is always a good investment, which seems true since I love what I do!” While she was at UTSW, she met her future husband, Craig Eroh. Craig was originally from a small farm in eastern Iowa (which is still in his family), but was attending UT-Austin and majoring in business. While there is an interesting story about where they met, for this article it is sufficient to say it was in the woods in east Texas. Things fell into place from there. She completed her MD, PhD training, chose Dermatology as her specialty, spent her intern year at UTSW; Craig finished his degree, and they were married (not necessarily in that order).

Finding dermatology

Sancy credits her MD, PhD mentor, Dr. Jean Wilson, the former chief editor of Harrison’s Textbook of Medicine, with helping her find dermatology. Sancy respected Dr. Wilson a great deal and says she wouldn’t have even considered dermatology had he not suggested it to her as a way to “have it all.” This was exactly what she wanted: medicine, science and family. The specialty of dermatology, which she loved once she experienced a rotation, combined with her interest in immunology, giving her the perfect opportunity she wanted, and the rest is history, as they say.

Sancy and Craig moved to Connecticut when Sancy matched with Yale University. They were in Connecticut for five years while Sancy also completed a fellowship in cutaneous oncology. During that time, Craig completed his masters in marriage and family therapy, and together they brought their son, Guy, into the world.

With her training complete, Sancy and Craig made the decision that Utah would provide the type of life they were looking to build – the right clinical and research opportunities at the University of Utah and the right lifestyle opportunities to allow them to live and raise their family modestly, rurally and connected to the outdoors. In fact, when they vacation it is usually time spent outdoors, backpacking, skiing, hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing and back-country skiing. They also own property and a yurt in Montana near Yellowstone.

Sancy’s family with her at a meeting in Bordeaux, France.
Sancy’s family with her at a meeting in Bordeaux, France.

Utah and the pain of leaving

Sancy’s family with her at a meeting in Bordeaux, France.

When they moved to Utah, Guy was 18-months old, and it made sense for Craig to stay home and care for him. When their daughter, Alli, was born about a year and a half later, it became clear that Craig would continue to support the family at home, as Sancy says, “Alli is definitely a daddy’s girl.”

Sancy and Craig have loved living and raising their children in Utah. In addition to taking advantage of all the wonderful outdoor activities that Utah has to offer, they also developed strong friendships within their community. Truthfully, Sancy describes a bit of mourning for their friends, her patients and colleagues. “I tend to develop very close personal relationships with the people I work with. I care very deeply about their success and happiness, and as leader of the Melanoma Program, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to promote them and help them become as successful as possible.” She continues, “And they are really taking off – I am so proud of them and hate to leave them.” Additionally, she says that Dr. John Zone, the chair at Utah, has been an once-in-a-lifetime mentor, colleague, teacher and friend, and he really had hoped that she would stay in Utah.

Sancy and Craig also both developed very close personal ties to the Park City community where they live and play, which is also where she has her clinic. “It has been heartbreaking for me to let these friends and patients know that I am leaving.” Further connecting them to Park City community, Sancy and Craig were deeply involved in helping to develop a nonprofit to support “smart growth” in the community, and this organization has helped Utah Open Lands protect nearly 900 acres of open space near their home in Utah. She explains, “The Toll Canyon area that we just were able to preserve is an almost spiritual place for me. I walk there, take the dogs and escape into nature right outside my front door.”

It is no wonder then that there is a real emotional loss that she is working through. “Taken together, my decision to step into unchartered territory while leaving behind a very comfortable, secure and spectacular place has caused me to experience a sense of mourning.” Continuing, Sancy says, “I don’t see this as a bad thing, though, because it just makes me human and provides the full range of emotional experience that makes life an adventure. “

Guy and Alli

Sancy’s career move is an outstanding and exciting opportunity that she made with open eyes and with eagerness, but it does affect her family. Her son, Guy, is a high school sophomore who will likely be transferring to Riverdale High School. He is not just interested, but more like “obsessed” with marine biology, which might have something to do with him being like his mom and very driven. This mature young man is also a cross-country runner and an avid fisherman. Alli, who will be entering eighth grade in the fall, is more like Craig with her interests in the liberal arts. She is highly social and enjoys dance and creative writing. Craig recently brought both children to Oregon for a week of visiting schools, looking for houses and, of course – fishing!

Guy and Alli
Guy and Alli

Oregon – a new opportunity

Their move to Oregon has been dealt with in the same way Sancy and Craig approach all things: define what you want and make it happen! With just a little more than a month into this transition, they have purchased a house (on 19 acres in NW Portland!), and the kids are lined up for their chosen schools. As for her progress as the chair of the department, Sancy’s schedule is increasingly crammed full of meetings and activities the days she is scheduled to be here between now and July, when she makes the full transition.

Interestingly, making the transition to become a department chair has not been a life-long goal for Sancy. She even states that she actively avoided it up until about three weeks before she received a call from OHSU. The change in perception, focus and desire came about after being a panelist at a global conference in Los Angeles, Calif., on cancer prevention, which was sponsored by the Melanoma Research Alliance and the Milken Institute. The meeting was devoted in part to helping successful business people see and develop venture philanthropy opportunities, and a lot of the program was devoted to describing/discussing/brainstorming how to make the world a better place through guiding philanthropic investments.

The session Sancy participated in focused on ways to increase awareness on important health care initiatives that deserve consideration for support. She says the meeting altered her perception of what can be accomplished in the world and what her role might be within that framework. These new ideas were juxtaposed with her ongoing internal discussions about what the next 20 years of her career should be and receiving the call from the OHSU search committee.

Thinking about how she could maximize her contributions to improve the world, Sancy considered the job at OHSU and the possibilities it could create. “I really see this position as an opportunity for me to do what I do best – translate science into medicine and bring together all the puzzle pieces so that it can happen effectively,” Sancy explains. “Perhaps I have grand visions, but I see it as an opportunity to achieve something spectacular. By leveraging the foundation of what has been built, with the strengths that I bring, we can position the faculty and the staff to be maximally effective, and therefore continue the development and contributions of the department within our community and beyond.”

Sancy’s strengths lie in her ability to build consensus. She prides herself on her abilities to build teams; this is the number one thing she is looking forward to in Oregon. “I have to say that I’m really looking forward to developing teams. We have so much potential, that it is almost palpable, and definitely energizing!” The opportunities include expanding the relationship between the department and the community, between the divisions of the department, between the department and the Cell and Developmental Biology Department and also with the Knight Cancer Institute.

Leachman family

Spring is a time of transition

Spring is a time of new growth and transition from winter to summer. We can think of Sancy as our spring and know that she will bring new growth and transition from what was to what will be. Her answer to my question of what she expects from the people who work in our department provides a clear global concept of her expectations:

“I expect everyone to collaborate for the good of the patients and the department. I want excellence in all that we do, and I want an ever-increasing standard of excellence. I believe that every staff member should be proud to work in the department, would choose to have their family treated nowhere else, and that they understand that their active participation is vital to our department’s mission.” Lastly, she adds, “I also want people to have a fulfilling, rewarding and fun job, regardless of their role in the department.”