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CANCER SPECIALIST OLIVER SARTOR | MEETING THE MINDS

Pulled up by his New Orleans roots

On his desk at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Dr. Oliver Sartor keeps a photograph of his great-grandfather -- the first Dr. Sartor -- who graduated from Tulane Medical School in New Orleans in 1872.

The current Dr. Sartor, 51, a prostate cancer specialist and Tulane graduate, is the 12th physician to descend directly from the whiskered, severe gentleman in the photograph. ``A patient I saw the other day had scars on his body from a hernia operation performed by my cousin," Sartor said.

He saw himself living up to his family legacy by staying in New Orleans, helping to care for his neighbors with prostate cancer and serving as director of the cancer center at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

But that was before Hurricane Katrina struck.

On the Saturday the hurricane began to drown Louisiana, Sartor, then at a conference in Paris, received an anxious telephone call from his 15-year-old daughter.

He told her not to worry, that hurricanes threatened the Gulf of Mexico all the time and that everything would fine.

He was a little bit right. Their house and everyone in it, including the pets, survived OK -- miraculously, the storm did only $17,000 in damage to the family home.

But the storm basically destroyed the cancer center. The patients were lost. The equipment was ruined. The hospital system was paralyzed.

``It was a total breakdown of civilization, a horrific mess," he said. ``We had hundreds if not thousands of patients with whom we had no communication. We were powerless."

His wife, a reproductive endocrinologist at a fertilization clinic, spent the days after the hurricane trying to rescue thousands of frozen embryos abandoned in the uproar. Both of them were quickly left jobless.

``There was no work and nowhere for people to live."

Even for all the television images of the flood, it's hard to imagine the scale of the wreckage, he said. Before the hurricane, Louisiana State University ran five hospitals in New Orleans. A year later, one is still cordoned off as part of a crime scene. Another was badly flooded, frying the wiring and leaving it contaminated with fungal growth. Two more went on the auction block. The last remains closed. ``It's the equivalent of every Harvard hospital being shut down," he says.

So Sartor left New Orleans for New England.

``We're thrilled to have him," said Philip Kantoff, head of the genitourinary department at Dana-Farber, where Sartor now works. ``After the hurricane, I saw him and said, `Why don't you come up here for a year and sort things out?' A month later he said he'd come up for good."

His main research goals remain the same: ``I've been predominantly involved in development of new drugs and treatments for prostate cancer."

Sartor isn't very sanguine about his native city's future. ``Boston is a great city with a great culture, but there's nothing like New Orleans," he said with a note of wistfulness. ``But more than half the people never came back. I'm worried that it'll become a caricature" of its former self.

Near Sartor's desk at Dana-Farber, next to a window overlooking Longwood and the rooftops of Mission Hill, is a photograph of a cypress tree. It's a tree that still stands on the Sartor family's land in Mississippi -- a giant of a tree, 55 feet in circumference and perhaps 1,000 years old. Deep roots are hard to extricate.

``The uncertainty of the post-storm period was pretty rough," he says. ``But I'm here, and I'm working. I feel very fortunate."

FACT SHEET

Hometown: Cambridge. And New Orleans, naturally.

Family: Wife, Sissy, son, Alton, 22, and daughter Abby, 16.

Likes: Research. ``It's about discovery. Maybe in another era I would have been an explorer in a canoe." Also, is fond of historic architecture.

Recreational activities: Hiking, fishing, bird-watching, wildlife photography.

Ambitions: ``I want to contribute in a meaningful way to Dana-Farber and the genitourinary group that's been so kind to me. And, of course, I want to see progress against prostate cancer."

Currently reading: ``The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini, a novel set in Afghanistan. ``It's about a civilization in chaos."

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