Dr. Dona Hobart, Breast Surgeon and Medical Director, LifeBridge Health’s Breast Care Centers
by Kym Byrnes, photography by Nikola Tzenov
Dr. Dona Hobart sees herself in her patients. A breast cancer surgeon, she has managed and expanded Carroll Hospital’s center for breast health since 2013. She said her own experience battling cancer has inspired the way she approaches treating the disease — she sees the importance of supporting all facets of the patient’s life, not just treating the disease itself. While everything turns pink in October with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Hobart says her successes are wrapped up in the “really tiny moments” in which she knows she is helping her patients.
When did you know you wanted to go into medicine and when did you know you wanted to focus on breast health?
There’s not really a straightforward response for that. When I started college I wanted to do something in the medical field, and then I took a detour. I studied psychology, and then economics and philosophy, and then my senior year I went back to the idea of medical school. After catching up on some prerequisites, I eventually went to medical school and focused on surgical. Breast surgery wasn’t a thing when I was trained; it started a few years after I was out of residency, and it was just a slow process for me figuring out what I liked. And then having my own cancer journey solidified my desire to treat cancer patients. I ended my residency in 1998 and then started a job pretty quickly. I was diagnosed with cancer in early 2000 and then had a bone marrow transplant in 2002.
Do you have roots in Carroll County?
I grew up in Westminster and went to Westminster High School. In 2013, Carroll Hospital decided it wanted to pursue a breast health program because they felt we could provide equally good service locally. They recruited me to come run and grow the Center for Breast Health program here, and that was a good move for me because my parents still lived here and by then I was a single parent of two kids.
Can you describe the work you do now?
We focus on the treatment of breast cancer, and I run the center at Carroll Hospital as well as Northwest Hospital for LifeBridge. So really, day to day, I am focused on patient care in addition to trying to continually improve what we’re doing. We do great, but therein lies the challenge of everything in life: You gotta keep going. It’s been said that perfection is not attainable but if you pursue perfection you can get to excellence, so the question is: What can we be doing better? I’m really lucky because I have a great team here, so everybody works together to support those ideas.
Can you share how your personal experience battling cancer impacts the work you do as a physician?
I started this program based on a mind-body-spirit approach to treating breast cancer, and I think that is where my personal experience has had an impact. I’m the same surgeon I was before I had cancer. I mean technically it’s not like I became a better surgeon. My studies in psychology made me aware of the fact that there are all these other things that happen when you get cancer that require support mechanisms, and our philosophy for treatment grew out of that. I tell people cancer treatment is 50 percent medical stuff and 50 percent other stuff, and the medical stuff is pretty much handled the same way wherever you go. The other stuff is where we really excel.
I want patients to relax when they’re with me, not be more anxious, I want them to be comfortable. We focus on what is going on in their lives. We just had a support group focused on intimacy, and that came about because our staff listens, and that is feedback they were getting from several patients. We also work to bring this community together to support each other, and that is something I bring with me from my personal cancer experience. I had a colleague who had the same cancer and treatment and we were really bonded by that. I learned the importance of having someone else that is really going through it to talk to.
I’m told that due to a bone marrow transplant, you were unable to get pregnant. Can you talk about your journey to becoming a mom in spite of not being able to have your own biological children?
My sister had already adopted a daughter from China and had two biological sons, so for me it was pretty obvious: just move on to adoption. I was married at the time so we adopted two kids from Nepal — that was my thing, I always had this weird connection to Nepal. Now I have two great kids. Ajaya is 17 and Tess is 15. They’re normal American kids. And we still maintain a connection with the orphanage.
What are you really proud of in your professional life?
In all honesty, the things that really drive me and make me proud are the really tiny moments. Yesterday, I operated on a patient, and I went out to talk to the husband and he told me that I am his wife’s favorite person. There are other moments like when a patient comes in and has a mammogram and the tech can’t find her surgery scars — the moments when you know you’re impacting people’s lives. I mean there’s a reason I’m not at one of the big institutions. I knew I wanted to be at a community place and on a daily basis impact lives in small ways.
What challenges are you faced with in your work?
Functionally there are always hurdles because all the extra stuff we do is not paid for by insurance, so we have to juggle — wanting to do more with trying to budget and figure out how to pay for it. We’ve been lucky. There’s this large group of patients that actually fundraise to support these programs for other patients, I think that’s one of the things I’m proud of too — patients getting involved. Beyond that, the disease is the biggest hurdle and challenge for me. It’s not every day, but every once in a while I get really mad that I can’t cure this disease, I can’t make it stop. I have young people, young people with kids, and sometimes it gets difficult, but you have to get through it. That’s the most important thing, then everything else is small potatoes.
What drives you — what motivates you to want to be such a force in the lives of the patients you help every day?
I don’t know if I know what drives me. Maybe it goes back to when I pivoted at Christmas of my senior year in college to go to medical school. Maybe it’s why I pivoted to focus on breast cancer — there’s something here that feeds me. Almost 20 years ago I had my bone marrow transplant, and good things came out of that, which was really shocking to me. Like yeah, I couldn’t have kids, but then I got these great kids I have now. I have the ability to say to my patients that I’ve evolved, and then I can connect it with them. And when I get to do that, it makes me happy. I want to help them get through their cancer and then help them use their cancer to catapult them to something that wasn’t there before.
What’s ahead for you?
In terms of work — we’re never done. We’re always looking at new technology and new ways to support our patients. I recently had a physician assistant join me and we’re really focusing on high-risk screening and trying to find those patients that need more screening — we need to figure out who they are, and that’s a challenge. I just love new technology and that kind of stuff. We’re looking at CT scanning of breasts, which means we could do breast cancer screening with no squashing. I think that always on the horizon is looking at what we can keep doing — we re-evaluate each year where we’re going. I never want to be done. There are always changes, and technology is always improving. I never want to be the surgeon that says, “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years and it’s perfect.”
One thing I haven’t mentioned that I find truly a blessing is the community here. I’ve been all over personally and professionally — and the support that the community gives to us, to this program, is not normal. I’ve practiced in other places and it was not this way. I’m not just saying this because I grew up here. It’s just the way the people are here, and that is unique and special to Carroll County and maybe Maryland. I think that is a blessing where I live and work in a place where there is constant support.