BY MARY BROPHY MARCUS
This is the sixth in a series of profiles of oncologists discussing how they unwind during the summer -- or other!-- months. Check out the entire series here. From traveling to music festivals and hidden oases to growing organic gardens and cycling to raise research funds, the profiles show the rich and diverse interests and unique experiences cancer experts have beyond their clinic and lab doors. You can also follow the tweets about this series here: #OTSummerVaca.
Deanna Attai, MD
When Oncology Times asked breast cancer surgeon Deanna Attai, MD, where she goes to unwind on her summer vacation, she said, "I don't have a summer vacation!"
"The last time I took a real vacation was in 2004. Because I have to travel a lot for work, I don't really take a true summer vacation," says Attai, the President of the American Society of Breast Surgeons and Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Surgery at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
Since last January, she's been away from home a week out of every month so she says just being home is nice – especially in her backyard where she grows an organic garden.
"My garden is my therapist and my counselor and my everything," says Attai, adding that she's lucky to live in southern California where the climate allows for almost year-round gardening.
She credits her mom--"a total green thumb when I was growing up"--as one of her inspirations.
"She'd grow African violets and orchids, some blueberry bushes. We had a lot of plants outside. I hated all of it because my sister and I had to do the weeding. Or we'd get dragged to a nursery on the weekend and we'd have to look at plants and we were bored out of our minds," Attai laughs.
She first reconnected with plants as an adult in 2007 and 2008. She was living in a condo at the time and grew herbs on her balcony. In 2009, she bought a house in Burbank, Calif., where the previous owner had kept roses and a few other plants in the backyard.
"I tried planting some vegetables. I didn't know what I was doing. And then the nurses at the hospital told me the pine trees gave a lot of shade and the pine needles were acid. So I called a tree guy and had the tree hauled out and I've pretty much slowly over the last four years been whittling away at the lawn out back, expanding the garden area so that now two-thirds of the backyard is garden and the other third is a narrow lap pool," Attai says, adding that she's learned a lot from trial and error, research, and conversations with other green thumbs.
The fruits of her labor include tomatoes, beans, butternut and acorn squash, sugar pie pumpkins, turnips, garlic, and cucumbers. When the weather turns cooler, she cultivates broccoli, spinach, kale, beets, and this past year, a "puny" crop of sugar snap peas.
"For the past few years I've started everything from seed in January and February inside--all organic heirloom."
What does she do with her bounty? "I give a lot of it away. I gave a bag of tomatoes to the OR staff."
She also has a freezer full of squash from last year, carrots that she's pureed, zucchini brown rice burgers, and tomato sauce.
Her secret to tasty homemade sauce: "I roasted my paste tomatoes with onion and garlic and pureed them with fresh basil, and thyme and oregano I planted last year."
Some of her other favorite herbs include lavender and chamomile that she dries and uses in tea.
Attai says she enjoys sharing her passion for plants with her patients, family, and friends on a Facebook page where she posts lots of colorful photos.
"It's funny. Friends come over to the house and say, 'You should open a farm stand', but I think that would take the fun out of it for me."
Gardening has also enriched her insights about life, she says. "It has made me more... there's definitely a cycle in the garden and not everything does well. I have a huge compost bin and I do a lot of composting and I keep amending the compost. It makes you appreciate life cycles and nature."
And it's just so peaceful, she adds. "I planted a lot of milkweed and now I get a bunch of humming birds. Sitting back there is so peaceful, calming, and tranquil. My dad, a retired cardiac surgeon, would come home in the evenings, back in New York where I grew up, and just go walking around in the garden and I used to ask my mom, 'What is he doing?' and now I do that and I know."
"As a surgeon, I'm orderly and organized and the garden has helped me get out of that. A garden does what it does. Nature does what it does," and she says it's good to be reminded of that.
Just a few of the many photos on Dr. Attai’s Facebook page