Dr. David Randolph II was 10 when he determined, in all his wistful youthfulness, that his father was a real-life superhero.
The memory is vivid: Father and son were in their car at a Roanoke-area Blockbuster — yes, the once-popular video store — when the elder man, also Dr. David Randolph, noticed an empty car slowly rolling through the parking lot, heading toward other parked cars.
“Little David,” as the younger Randolph is sometimes called, watched in awe as his larger-than-life father leapt out of their vehicle and used his body to stop the moving car. Turns out the driver forgot to use their parking brake and their gear shift was left in neutral.
For the young Randolph, who grew up watching Superman lift cars with ease, that moment watching his father stuck with him. It solidified even back then his desire to be just like his father and in fact, Dr. Randolph II, now 35, succeeded in following in his father’s footsteps — all the way to the same job, at the same cancer institute, in offices within shouting distance of each other.
Both Drs. Randolph — father and son — are radiation oncologists at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Johnston-Willis Hospital. It’s there they use high-powered radiation and other types of radiation sources to treat cancer.
Both towering well over 6 feet tall — the elder Randolph edges out his son just a bit — this father-son duo makes a striking presence. Their physical stature, however, is exceeded only by their warmth, their caring natures, and their deep devotion to their families and their patients.
Sitting in an office Friday morning on one side of the institute, the two men talked easily about working together. Mutual respect runs deep. Egos are left at the door. There’s a balance, the younger Randolph said. Experience meets cutting-edge.
They joke that their patients get a “two-for-one” deal because each of them examines the other’s cases.
“We make this perfect blend of new technology and extensive experience that you’re just not going to find anywhere else,” Randolph II said.
“I bring a lot of the new knowledge and new techniques,” he added, while his father “has over 30 years of experience ... I can never learn that from a textbook.”
This father and son would come to know medicine in vastly different ways.
The elder Randolph, 61, number six of 13 children, grew up in Charlotte County. His father had a second-grade education, he said, and his grandfather never learned to read or write. He was the first male in his family to attend college. He was drawn to medicine by his own ailments. He was asthmatic as a child and suffered from hip dysplasia. His parents, he said, didn’t believe in doctors.
“I was sick all the time,” he said. He recalled the one instance — only one — when he visited a doctor. He received a shot for his asthma, which worked immediately.
“I could breathe and it was awesome,” he said, though it was short-lived. That visit “cost money and [his parents] figured out I wasn’t gonna die from it so I didn’t go back.”
He continued: “When you have asthma and you cannot breath and feel like you’re going to die...” he said, his voice trailing off. Those experiences led him to the medical field. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University, then Eastern Virginia Medical School, followed by residencies in Lynchburg and then VCU.
“I wanted to stop people from suffering,” he said. While he originally wanted to be a pediatrician, then a family practice doctor, he met a radiation oncologist while in his first residency and the rest is history.
“Little David,” on the other hand, the middle of three children, idolized his father and knew early on that he wanted to go into medicine. He initially thought he wanted to go into orthopedic surgery, because he loved sports, but quickly realized he didn’t like operating on people. His path led him to oncology, specifically radiation oncology.
He attended the University of Richmond and VCU Medical Center, followed by a residency at Wake Forest University.
Seeing his son head toward radiation oncology, the senior Randolph said he heavily recruited his son once there was a position at his institute.
“Wherever he was, he would be a tremendous asset and a tremendous draw because of his kind and warm personality and his easy way with people,” Randolph said about his son. That, and “I knew that we would never find anybody better than him.”
Randolph II said he doesn’t take for granted that he gets to see his father every day. He knows not every father and son has that kind of relationship.
“He’s such an incredible man, and its such an honor and a blessing to able to see him on a daily basis,” he said. “To share in what we do, which is, doing everything we can to help our patients and improve their lives — to share that journey with him has just been better than I’ve ever imagined.”
Before the pandemic, Father’s Day — which also happens to be the elder Randolph’s 39th wedding anniversary this year — involved him making brunch for his whole family, he said. If nothing else, he and his wife will do what they normally do now on weekends — the “grandkids’ rounds,” which means visiting their 2-year-old grandson, David Randolph III, as well as their daughter’s 10-month-old twin boys, Max and JoJo.
Both men said that the only tradition their family holds tight is making time for each other.
When asked about retirement, the elder Randolph joked that he hasn’t yet been given the signal.
“I tell everybody,” he said, “I’ll retire the day that David says ‘It’s time for you to go.’”