By Lesley Plotkin
From the moment I stepped into Flatiron’s office on January 8, 2014, I knew I was embarking on something completely unique, important and risky. I was in my mid-thirties, living in New York City with my husband, working hard, much harder than I had ever worked before at any job. But, as cliche as it might sound, it never felt like work. I was motivated by how much I was learning, and how we were slowly paving the way for an entirely new path for cancer research – one that didn’t exist before. Scientists and doctors have been researching cancer for thousands of years, and, here I was, making my own impact on the mission to “find a cure.”
Each day I would leave the office in awe of the ambition that surrounded me. The mission that Flatiron was founded on permeated through every decision we made, every task we took on. I’d work a full day in the office, come home to have dinner with my husband and then log on to work some more.
But in the midst of this routine, it was “time” to start planning to have a baby. But ah, how could I do that? I didn’t even have an hour to take a yoga class with my work schedule – how was I going to keep up at work AND take on this huge responsibility of having a baby? So when I did get pregnant, a gamut of emotions ran through me – elation, fear, anxiety. The hardest part was having to keep it to myself for the first trimester. I spent so much time with my colleagues – they were family to me – so it was really difficult to keep this quiet.
About six weeks into my pregnancy, Nat and Zach – our co-founders – asked me to represent Flatiron at a patient-focused conference in Washington, D.C. A few days before the meeting, I had a routine doctor visit. To our shock, the ultrasound didn’t show our baby’s heartbeat. The doctor told us that the baby’s heartbeat might just be hidden from view, so he recommended blood work that would indicate the health of the baby. We were left waiting, feeling uncertain, but hopeful the levels would reveal everything was fine.
On the train ride down to D.C., my phone started ringing. In the “quiet car,” no less, my doctor was on the other end of the phone telling me that I had lost the baby. With 30 minutes left on the train ride, I sobbed quietly, surrounded by complete strangers. I had never felt so lost, so isolated, so hollow. I just stared out of the window, with tears falling down my face in utter disbelief. All I wanted to do was scream, get off the train, be with my husband. Instead, I placed my hand on my belly, closed my eyes for the remainder of the trip and thought about how I was no longer going to be a mother, an identity that I was just starting to get comfortable with. I was devastated.
This just so happened to be the same day that Flatiron announced our next round of funding and our acquisition of Altos Solutions. Flatiron was immediately catapulted into the public eye, gaining major traction and further legitimizing our position in the industry. This was a major accomplishment for my close-knit work family — it should have been a day of tremendous celebration. But all I could do was try to make sense of my unbearable loss and my shattered plans.
The next morning, I took a deep breath, did my very best to compartmentalize the pain and headed to the conference. I spent the day listening to patient stories – these were patients who had had metastatic cancer – aggressive, often deadly, difficult-to-treat diseases – and survived. Each patient shared intimate details of their diagnoses, their fears, what kept them sane and how they managed to pull through to the other side, now more appreciative of their lives and stronger than before.
In addition to patients, we heard from practicing oncologists and researchers. These were people who were frustrated and wanted change. People who knew that we had made tremendous progress in the pursuit of the elusive “cure,” but who wanted the industry to move more quickly. People who spent every waking moment looking for ways to save lives.
And then, after lunch, the most amazing thing happened: an oncologist stood up during one of the sessions, and asked “I just don’t get it – why can’t we glean insights from the patients out there, in the real-world – patients here today – who are bravely fighting cancer? Why are we, as doctors, and as researchers, not talking to each other?”
It was at that moment that I truly realized the importance of Flatiron – we were going to change the face of healthcare. We were going to facilitate that communication. We were going to revolutionize patient care. This was bigger than me, so much bigger than my own grief. And at that same moment, I was able to transform my despair into an overwhelming feeling of hope.
Four months later I was pregnant again – and on April 23, 2015, I became a mother, welcoming a healthy, beautiful baby boy named Maxwell Chase.