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History is important to David Lewis, MD, a nuclear medicine specialist. He has a rich history at UW Medicine, having been here since his residency in 1985. And he has a long, complex family history that goes back to his ancestors arriving in the United States in the 1600s.  

Lewis also loves to share about the past and present of his specialty — and to help shape the future of nuclear medicine diagnostics and therapeutics. 

Uncovering and reconciling with the past

Lewis’s first memory is as a 3-year-old at a hospital being treated for illness and yelling that he hated doctors. Just a few years later, though, he decided he wanted to be one. 

After completing medical training in Virginia, where he grew up, he decided to come to Washington even though he only had one friend here at the time. 

“I came west knowing nothing about Seattle. It was a culture shock. Now, Washington is my favorite place on Earth,” he says. 

Despite his East Coast upbringing, he didn’t learn until adulthood that his ancestors were some of the first white settlers on the land that became the United States. They came from Wales in 1653. His ancestors include George Washington Lewis, his fourth-great grandfather who was the nephew of George Washington; and Meriwether Lewis, a distant cousin. 

Learning about his family history has been exciting and disconcerting — especially when he learned that some of his most distant ancestors owned enslaved people, and one of his ancestors from the mid-1800s fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War. 

“Learning about all this has made me believe strongly in the need for reparations for Black Americans, personally for me to make and for this country to make,” he says. 

Growing up, he knew very little about the Lewis side of the family because his father died when he was 9. He started researching his genealogy after his mother died in 2007. Learning about her Polish ancestors has proven more difficult, but he wants to keep trying.  

Shaping the future of nuclear medicine

Research is a big part of his personal and professional life. Though Lewis knew from a young age that he wanted to be a doctor, he didn’t know what he wanted to specialize in until he was introduced to a nuclear medicine doctor in medical school.  

The doctor gave a presentation about using radioactive iodine to treat thyroid cancer. 

“One slide showed that the cancer had spread from the thyroid all over the body, but then the doctor treated it and it was all gone. I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that,’” Lewis says. 

Nuclear medicine involves using small amounts of radioactive tracers that can be delivered into the body to help image and treat cancer.  

A common example of nuclear medicine is a Positron Emission Tomography, or a PET scan.  

Nuclear medicine techniques go beyond cancer diagnosis and treatment, too. Lewis specializes in nuclear medicine to diagnose and treat brain conditions, but the specialty can also serve patients who have heart and bone conditions. 

Lewis started out treating vascular disease in the brain at Harborview. He is section chief of nuclear medicine in the Department of Radiology and served as director of nuclear medicine at Harborview from 2005 through 2020.  

He is now based at UW Medical Center – Montlake and does a lot of work in imaging and treating tumors as well as in epilepsy diagnosis and care, such as identifying which part of the brain a seizure originates from to help neurosurgeons know where to operate.  

He has also been involved in the well-known Snow World research that looks at how a virtual reality game set in a snowy world helps burn patients get relief from their symptoms. Lewis and the team have seen significant brain changes when patients play the game, such as patients experiencing less pain during wound care.  

Lewis hopes to expand the power of virtual reality to replace opiates as pain management for some patients. He’s also excited about the advances nuclear medicine is making to treat prostate cancer and the theranostics program he is helping build at UW Medicine. Theranostics is the combined power of imaging and therapeutic treatments to locate and treat a tumor.  

“Nuclear medicine offers absolutely unique abilities in imaging and treatment that are hopefully going to be appreciated more and more as time goes by,” he says.