How ‘Patch Adams’ Inspired This Radiation Oncologist’s Career Path 

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Dr. Shekinah Elmore draws on her personal experience and medical expertise to better the lives of patients during difficult times

Shekinah Elmore
Dr. Shekinah Elmore was recognized as one of Chapel Hill Magazine‘s Women of Achievement in 2022.

By Elizabeth Kane | Photo by John Michael Simpson

When Dr. Shekinah Elmore was interviewing for jobs after completing her residency in the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program, she felt she could find the balance she wanted in her life in Chapel Hill. “I just love academic life. … It’s very exciting,” Shekinah says. “I think there’s not a better place than Chapel Hill for that.” She says she wanted to find a “great academic community … particularly a health care community that was dedicated to global health and health equity, and also a place where my family would be happy.” 

The radiation oncologist’s work routine is a mix of research days and clinic days. “I feel really lucky to have a pretty diverse set of responsibilities,” Shekinah says. The clinic days can be intense, as she consults with patients going through incredibly difficult moments. “I’m an oncologist, so people are at a really challenging time in their life, even if it’s relatively good news I’m delivering,” Shekinah says. 

She says her research and administrative days are a nice complement. “They’re not always necessarily emotionally laden. … They’re a mix of meetings and a time to take a step back and think.” Shekinah says. “The research times help me reflect on how I could be doing a better job in [the] clinic.” 

Shekinah recalls a time in her life when she was a sophomore at Brown University, weighing medical school. “I felt very conflicted about that,” Shekinah remembers. Around this time, she attended a lecture given by Dr. Hunter Doherty PatchAdams, considered a nontraditional physician. (His life was made into a movie starring Robin Williams, with scenes that were filmed on UNC’s campus.) Something told her to speak to Dr. Adams afterward. “I had never heard a lecture like his,” Shekinah recalls. “I told him, ‘I was so moved by your talk, and it was so beautiful. … [And] I’m not sure whether I want to go to medical school or not. … But your talk showed me what it could be, to be a doctor.’” 

Shekinah says, “He was so kind,” and though she didn’t have his book to sign, he wrote on a sheet of paper to her: “May I haunt your every compromise.” Dr. Adams’ advice “stuck with me all these years,” Shekinah says. “He was adamant about realizing you should do whatever you have to do in life. [His advice is] about not giving up on something you really want. … I’ve thought about a lot of my life decisions that way.” 

Shekinah, who is a cancer survivor herself, also says some of her own experiences while being sick as a child and a young person led to her interest in medicine and cancer care. She had always loved science, but she also wanted to administer care and empathy to patients during difficult times. 

In her free time, Shekinah loves to visit the Chapel Hill Farmers Market and the Carrboro Farmers Market with her husband, Adam Cluff, and their son, William Elmore Cluff, who is 3 ½ years old. She also spends time gardening, cooking and baking, sometimes with William. “Cooking and baking are lovely activities to do at home, with a toddler, if you’re not too attached to efficiency, but the joy of the process,” Shekinah says. 

She also enjoys giving back in different ways. “I do talks for community or student groups, particularly groups that center folks of color and Black folks,” Shekinah says. “I [also] help people navigate college, medical [school] or residency applications. … I do a lot of mentorship and try to connect people to opportunities that are related to my day job, but not a formal part of it.” 

She’s generally a morning person and has embraced that attitude even more over the years. “Medical training has made me that way, but I like it,” Shekinah says. “Also, having a young kid has reinforced that!” 

However, it’s the purpose within her work and personal life that truly fuels her to start her days. “I get to see patients who I take care of. I get to work on these research questions that are my own questions that I created,” Shekinah says. “I get to garden. I get to hang with my family and have dinner later in the day. I usually get up and [think] there’s always something exciting for the day.” 

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