Kurt Weiss wasn’t planning on going to the doctor’s that week. Like most teenagers, he had other things on his mind. Then at football practice, his leg started to hurt him terribly.
“My mother threatened to cancel my mountain climbing trip with friends if I didn’t go,” he explains. “So to humor her, I went.”
It was a good thing he did. After being diagnosed with sarcoma, Kurt was sent immediately to Mark Goodman, MD, who at that time was the only orthopaedic oncologist in western Pennsylvania. By the age of 15, Kurt received his last rites when his cancer spread to his lungs for the third time.
Then, in 1990, Kurt participated in a clinical trial that saved his life. Developed by researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the immune-based method was designed to destroy drug-resistant bone tumor cells. The trial worked, and with the help of Dr. Goodman, Kurt Weiss began the long road to recovery.
Unfortunately, fixing Kurt’s leg was no easy task. He developed repeated infections, and finally, Kurt and Dr. Goodman decided together that an amputation was necessary.
“Then, during finals week at Notre Dame, my leg was hemorrhaging every day,” remembers Kurt. “I called Dr. Goodman. He said, ‘Kurt, if I have to come up there and carry you to your tests, you’re going to finish your finals before we get this done.’ ”
Not only did Kurt finish his finals; he also made it to the 1996 Orange Bowl, where he marched as president of the Notre Dame band. After the amputation, he also marched, although he was able to do it even better than before.
“That experience really had a profound effect on me,” explains Kurt. “I had thought I wanted to be an engineer, like my dad and my uncles and my sister. But I really became interested in the pathologic aspects of my disease. And more than that, I admired the people like Dr. Goodman who were looking after me. I wanted to be like them when I grew up.”
And grow up, he did. In 2003, he earned his medical degree and won a Howard Hughes Research Scholars Award to do research on metastic bone tumors at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Eventually, he joined Dr. Goodman’s practice at UPMC.
Now known as Kurt Weiss, MD, he is one of only a handful of surgeons who specialize in sarcoma. Dr. Weiss is also one of the very few physician-scientists searching for a cure for this disease, and the only one who is also a former sarcoma patient. Part of the orthopaedic surgery team at UPMC, he still spends at least two days in the lab, studying the science behind the disease and looking for the answer that will stop it for good.
At the same time, his colleagues — Dr. Goodman and Dr. McGough — are beginning a clinical research study of artificial limbs that actually hook onto a patient’s real bones, and look and act just like real limbs. Hoping to be a part of the 15-institution study, Dr. Weiss, who owes his life to a clinical trial, was one of the first to sign up.
*Adapted from the Shadyside Voice article entitled “I can help you. This is what I do.”