Medical patients typically expect to see their doctor wearing a white lab coat and stethoscope during checkups and consultations. Not a kilt, though.

However, the garment has been an integral part of how Dr. Kevin McMullen, a radiation oncologist at Columbus Regional Health, practices medicine.

McMullen said he reached a point in his career several years ago when he questioned whether he had the strength to continue.

“The pain the patients go through and how hard it is to deal with dying people on a regular basis gets to you,” he said. “A friend of mine sent off to Ireland and had a kilt made from my family tartan and it was beautiful.”

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The gift was a radically generous one, McMullen said, and he added that he wears the kilt regularly because it allows him to tell his patients of how one person’s radical generosity changed his perspective.

“It reminds me that when I do feel those pangs of emotional fatigue to remember the generosity that I was given,” he said.

Many patients will ask when he’s going to wear his kilt because they want to schedule their follow-up visits on that day, McMullen added.

“My philosophy on work and life is that I want my life and workplace where I practice to be like a garden … Gardens are places of amazing refreshment and just being. Where there is rest and real shalom, especially for those who are facing a diagnosis that may take their life.”
—Dr. Kevin McMullen

The 52-year-old doctor said he found his niche in radiation oncology about 19 years ago following his work as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Army. Originally, he had his sights set on going into urology, but quickly found things weren’t necessarily as they seemed.

“Everything looked rosy and cool. But you don’t understand the reality and so I did the surgery internship and realized I didn’t like the operating room,” McMullen said.

What the Corpus Christi, Texas, native found appealing that was nonsurgical was radiation and oncology.

After he was discharged from the military he completed his residency at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and continued to stay on the faculty for another nine years. From there he moved to Bloomington, where he worked at the IU Proton Therapy Center until it closed in 2011.

The father of four continued his work at IU Health in Indianapolis until the spring of this year when McMullen joined the radiation and oncology staff at Columbus Regional Health.

“One of the things I really like about my specialty is I have time to spend with my patients,” he said. “Cancer patients have special sets of needs and grief issues. You get to know your patients very well.”

Another perk of his specialty is the rapidly advancing research, he added. Having spent time in academia, McMullen said the educational opportunities he takes part in now are more community outreach-based and finding new ways to limit the footprint of the therapy that’s being performed.

Making his patients feel comfortable is of the utmost importance, and part of that is taking a more holistic approach to each individual case. These people have a lot going on and it isn’t just that they have a disease, he said. In many cases, other contributing factors can contribute to and complicate the patient’s existing anxiety.

“One thing that always bothered me is a lot of times patients come in and are labeled,” McMullen said. “It’s a person who has a diagnosis. They have a lot of stuff going on that may have been ignored.”

Beth Thompson, medical dosimetrist with oncology at Columbus Regional, has worked with McMullen for five years and said it is his rapport with patients that makes him stand out.

“He is very compassionate about what he does,” she said. “One of my favorite things is his heart for the patients. He cares so much about the patients that he takes it home with him and loses sleep about the treatment plans and their outcomes.”

He also has a tremendous focus on survivorship, Thompson said.

McMullen’s approach is to include not only the patient, but the family and caregivers who are walking the journey alongside the patient. His ability to connect with his patients on a personal level and the energy he brings when he enters a room helps make them feel at ease, Thompson said.

“His desk is littered with love from patients,” Thompson said. “It is full of things his patients have given him and each has a story.”

The greatest challenge McMullen said he faces is keeping up with the continued advancements in radiation oncology. He describes it as a double-edged sword.

“There are advances and advances we want to happen,” he said. “And there’s caring for people. It’s a wonderful thing, but you have to keep up.”

A consistent backdrop to spending quality time with patients and offering compassionate care while marrying that priority with keeping up on the latest research is his simplistic outlook about the meaning of it all.

“My philosophy on work and life is that I want my life and workplace where I practice to be like a garden,” McMullen said. “Gardens are places of amazing refreshment and just being. Where there is rest and real shalom, especially for those who are facing a diagnosis that may take their life.”

ASK THE EXPERT: Dr. Kevin McMullen

For patients who have received a cancer diagnosis, there’s a whirlwind of questions. Dr. Kevin McMullen, a radiation oncologist at Columbus Regional Health’s Cancer Center, offered answers to some of the most common questions asked by patients anticipating radiation treatment.

Q: What happens when you receive a diagnosis? Do you have to wait to get a referral?

When someone receives a diagnosis of cancer, he or she is welcome to contact the Cancer Center at Columbus Regional Health directly. Patients do not need a formal physician referral to seek a consult.

Q: How do I know if I’ll have to have radiation?

Each patient’s treatment plan is highly individualized to his or her personal circumstance. The decision regarding radiation will be addressed during your consultation with a radiation oncologist.

Q: How has radiation treatment changed over the years?

In short, techniques and level of care are highly advanced and improved. The quality of imaging capabilities with today’s radiation therapy technology is, without question, the biggest game changer. …We are able to locate the tumor and develop a dose that is mapped and treated to exact dimensions of the tumor. This helps keep healthy organs away from risk and reduces the overall footprint created by the radiation treatment.

Q: What can I expect with my first treatment?

Patients can expect to be greeted by a radiation therapist who will take them, step-by-step, through the entire process, explaining each course of action prior to and during the treatment. The imaging process is what generally takes the majority of the treatment time each day, with the delivery of the radiation dose typically taking just a few minutes.

Q: What happens if I have to have more than one round of radiation?

Your physician will advise you of all the different options in your case. In the event a patient requires radiation treatment a second time, for a second cancer or a subsequent cancer recurrence, your physicians will determine if the location of treatment is different than the first course of radiation. If the location of the second cancer is different, then a second course of radiation is generally safe and not associated with an increased risk.

Q: What types of equipment are used?

HDR (high-dose rate) brachytherapy for treatment of skin cancer. This option allows patients to avoid potentially disfiguring surgery to remove those types of cancer cells. Additionally, we offer HDR brachytherapy procedures to reduce the treatment footprint and improve cancer outcomes for prostate, breast and gynecologic cancers.

For patients who are not candidates for, or who would prefer a non-surgical cancer treatment option, we also offer highly precise stereotactic radiosurgery of brain, liver, lung, spine tumors and other sites that benefit from this type of laser-like precision. The CRH Cancer Center is also one of only three sites in the state offering breast cancer treatment in a special breast positioning device that administers the radiation with the lowest risk possible of exposure to vital organs surrounding the breast tissue, such as the heart and lungs.

Q: What kinds of side effects should I expect?

The vast majority of patients have minimal side effects with the advanced techniques available at CRH.

Our multidisciplinary approach also affords our patients access to a team of social workers, nutritionists and others that can provide patients with the tips and tools they need to keep their bodies and minds in the best shape possible during treatment, which also helps minimize potential side effects.

Q: How do chemotherapy and radiation work together for treatment?

Some cancers require the use of chemotherapy either before and/or during radiation treatment.

In most cases, the purpose of chemotherapy during radiation is to sensitize the tumor tissues to make the radiation more effective. …The type of chemotherapy that will be used in your combined treatment course would be determined during your encounter with the medical oncology specialist.

Q: I’ve done research online and talked with others who have undergone treatment. Can I take what information I’ve gathered to my physician? Will he or she be offended? How do I talk about what I’ve learned and heard?

Our physicians always encourage their patients to do as much research as they feel comfortable.

Being as informed as possible will ensure that patients and caregivers will be prepared to ask all the questions that will settle any concerns they have and ensure that your physician is able to better explain all the issues related to your care.

It certainly does not offend us when our patients bring in information or questions they’ve gathered from friends, family or personal research.

As oncologists, we are partners in the patient’s care.