Center unites docs in cancer fight

STEUBENVILLE – Miracles happen at the Tony Teramana Cancer Center – and not just the medical kind, though those happen with astounding frequency.

On the administrative side, the Tony Teramana Cancer Center is the only place you’ll find UPMC medical oncologists working in the same building with Allegheny Health System radiation oncologists.

The unique arrangement has UPMC’s Dr. Pervaiz Rahman and Dr. Dennis Meisner working right next to AGH radiation oncologists Dr. Mark Trombetta and Dr. John Hyland to the benefit of thousands of cancer patients every year.

“This is probably the only place where we’re in the same building,” Hyland said. “It’s been a really nice arrangement. I certainly appreciate the doctors being here, they’re very good with patients and what we do. It’s nice to have them right next door. If I have a question about a patient I can get an answer in 30 seconds – I just walk over and talk to them. It’s a big plus.”

Teramana Cancer Center, part of Trinity Health System, was established 13 years ago to address the high incidence of cancer in the area and provide a community-based treatment option. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients requiring radiation or chemotherapy treatments – more than 8,500 to date – the hospital commenced a nearly $9 million expansion effort that doubled the size of its treatment space in 2010.

Hyland said there’s no disputing the need: Jefferson County leads the state in cancer, and the numbers are just as high throughout other parts of the Upper Ohio Valley. Teramana Cancer Center’s patient base is regional.

“It’s an older population, and the older you are the more likely you are to get cancer,” he said. “And the other thing is the prevalence of smoking in the area. There are more smokers here than in most of the country, that’s certainly contributing to the problem.”

He said Teramana Cancer Center is equipped to deal with most patient needs, “and if it’s something we’re not set up to do, it’s a simple matter to get people taken care of (in Pittsburgh). But the majority of stuff we can do here, just as well as they can do it in Pittsburgh.”

In some ways the UPMC-AGH arrangement parallels Trinity’s own story, which began decades ago with the unification of longtime rivals St. John Medical Center and Ohio Valley Hospital into one organization.

Trombetta, in private practice locally at the time, said it quickly became apparent to the powers that be that they needed to show the community all it stood to gain medically by pooling resources and opportunities.

“They had to have a product of sorts that would show the community what we did was valuable,” he said. “The hospital system has done a lot of good things here, but the cancer center has to be one of the most successful.”

Rahman sees it as the ultimate collaboration.

“A lot of cancer centers say they are comprehensive cancer centers, but they’re not,” he said. “We are – we provide medical oncology treatments, we provide radiation oncology treatments. We have clinical trials through some of the major consortiums in the U.S. We have patient advocacy, we provide emotional care, we provide financial support. We asked our patients, ‘How can we help you more’ and they told us they needed help with groceries, so now we have a dietary initiative. We’re helping about 35 families meet their dietary needs, month after month.”

To make all that happen requires community involvement, he added. The dietary support, for instance, is funded strictly through community donations. Likewise, community support also makes the gas cards, food cards and financial assistance possible.

“This center is a great example of doctors coming together for one reason, for the service of our patients,” Rahman added. “We just don’t give (medical treatment), we provide all the other support that goes with it – the 24-hour services, the nutritional support, the gas cards and food cards. And we give them hope.”

He said most non-patients don’t realize that when the cancer center’s medical staff leaves for the night, patients with questions or concerns need only call their office and they’ll be connected to a University of Pittsburgh medical oncologist who can assist them, no matter the hour.

Likewise, they also have an early morning walk-in service for patients who need immediate attention so they can get the care they need without having to go to the emergency department.

“It’s not just about (treating) the patients,” Rahman added. “It’s about talking to them, counseling them and allaying their anxiety. If a patient

comes to you and says they have colon cancer, they’re putting their life in your hands – that’s where the relationship starts. There’s a responsibility that goes with that. These are very desperate people looking into your eyes and saying, ‘Yes, I think I trust you to save my life.'”

Meisner describes what they’re doing at Teramana Cancer Center as the ultimate collaboration, allowing the four of them to bounce ideas off each other and work collaboratively on a daily basis.

“We work as a team,” he said, pointing out patients can’t always travel to Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Columbus for treatments, “so we work with them here. But if they do have a complex cancer that requires intensive treatment … we can reach out to doctors in different places and make it work for them.

“It’s all about our patients, what we do here,” Meisner added, crediting Trinity for creating a supportive environment. “Some hospitals just focus on profits, but at Trinity, we have an oncology navigator, a nurse specialist, who solves un-solvable problems – people who have no insurance, or who don’t have transportation to their treatments. She does fundraisers, gets them gas cards. The hospital pays her salary, and she’s a wonderful liaison for us.”

Rahman said the kudos extend to their nursing staff, which patients have described as “angels without wings.”

“They’re outstanding,” he said. “I have a patient I treated 10 years ago, he needed chemotherapy. He could have had his port taken out but he wouldn’t do it – he wants to come and talk to the nurses once a month. It’s almost like his (security blanket), he wants to come and get hugged every month.”

Trombetta said the community, too, deserves its share of the credit.

“I remember back when they were raising money for the second renovation a few years ago, there’d been so much growth we were bursting at the seams,” he said. “Bob D’Anniballe was the chief fundraiser, and I remember him telling me it was the easiest money he ever raised. The people in this community saw a need and they have big hearts, and they opened up their hearts.”

Trinity, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, and part of Sylvania Franciscan Health system, “puts a lot of focus on spiritual care,” he adds.

“When I say spiritual, I’m not talking Oprah Winfrey spiritual,” he adds. “I’m talking about faith in God, the ‘G’ word that’s not used all the time. Here it’s welcomed, it’s encouraged. If we think we can do anything without God, we’re fooling ourselves.”

And he says that when the focus is on patients and their care, “it all works. It doesn’t make a difference who you work for, just if you do the right thing.”

Rahman, too, sees that what happens at Teramana Cancer Center on a daily basis as a “beacon of light” for their two, often-times combative employers.

“This is how it should be,” Rahman said. “It should not be about ‘them and us,’ it should be about us doing for our patients.”