By Vicki de Vries
This year, an estimated one-and-a-half-million Americans will be diagnosed with some type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. That dreaded C word strikes fear in the hearts of the most stalwart among us.
But thanks to the Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center (the Center) at Northern Westchester Hospital, fear has been replaced with relief. And in many cases, healing–as thousands have found what one patient calls “a safe haven.”
What kind of care does every patient in the world want? Most likely, these closely-linked C words: competent, coordinated, customized, convenient, and compassionate, all of which spell e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-c-e. In the process of touring the Center, speaking with numerous staff members and therapists, along with a few patients, Inside Chappaqua was pleased to discover this word exists nearby.
Skilled Professionals Provide Competent, Customized, Coordinated Care
When it comes to competent care, the Center excels. The therapists and staff are highly trained professionals. Asked how he would describe the team, head oncologist (cancer physician) Dr. Alfred Tinger, who has worked at the Center since it opened in 2005, put it succinctly: “Knowledgeable, personable, dedicated, experienced, eager to serve,” adding that “we certainly strive to make their lives and the lives of their families easier during this time. This is why we exist.”
Any successful enterprise has to maintain careful protocols. Of supreme importance is the accumulation of data about a patient’s cancer profile obtained through either the linear accelerator, which provides radiation treatment to the exact location of the cancer cells, and the gamma knife, which is not a knife at all, but a highly sophisticated, non-invasive device for treating a broad spectrum of brain lesions. Once data has been sent to resident medical physicist, Steve Iorio, he and the staff analyze it to determine the precise dose of radiation needed to treat the cancer and avoid critical organs. Therapists work closely with the technology team to ensure the highest level of quality diagnosis and treatment.
It should be no surprise that after visiting the Center, oncologists from the “sophisticated” hospitals in Manhattan, impressed with equipment and staff, will refer their Westchester patients to the Center for radiation treatments. That endorsement speaks for itself.
A Major Stress Reducer–
Conveniently Located Care
Before the Center opened, cancer patients in Northern Westchester often had to make a long trek to find quality care. Now, with the Center offering the same professional, state-of-the-art care as renowned but more distant hospitals, travel time for these cancer patients has been drastically reduced–and their stress levels as well.
When diagnosed with Cancer, Beth Besen chose to work with a Manhattan-based oncologist who specialized in her rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Finding travel to the city twice every three weeks for chemotherapy hard enough, she was adamant about finding an alternative place for daily radiation.
Besen was relieved and grateful the Center was able to meet and administer the same quality protocol she’d receive in the city. Soothing surroundings and caring staff made treatment more tolerable, while staying local meant less stress and more time to recover and go about her daily routine.
Setting a Standard for Compassionate Patient Care
Certainly, many fine hospitals provide competent, coordinated, customized, conveniently located cancer care to their patients, but some would argue that compassion is often lacking in healthcare.
The Center proves otherwise. What sets it apart is not only its “high tech” level of competence, but also its “high touch” level of compassion. The staff and the therapists express a strong sense of empathy with their patients. “We’re all family here” is the oft-repeated mantra, but it sounds and seems genuine.
Start with the Twigs Healing Garden. Unlike typically sterile-looking hospital waiting rooms, Twigs reminds one of a spa. Patients await their radiation treatments dressed in waffle-weave robes while sitting on comfortable furniture, surrounded by plants under an atrium-like ceiling that allows light to enter the spacious room. “The setting was designed to be bright and airy to help patients feel more relaxed and confident,” said Adele Gargano, director of the Center. A nearby table holds the Healing Crane Tree, painted tree branches from which hang colorful origami cranes. Hope Soars Over All cards in a glass bowl offer inspirational words, and patients are encouraged to share theirs on blank cards. Bowls of fresh fruit and cookies add a homey touch. Once a week, a pianist plays soothing sounds to enhance the already relaxing atmosphere.
Integrative medicine “modalities” are also incorporated into the Center’s cancer treatment protocol. Anne E. West, the integrative medicine nurse, offers massage, acupuncture, and reflexology to patients who want them. Coordinating medical and integrative treatments in one place saves patients precious time and energy.
Details count, and the Center has worked hard to consider as many as possible. One patient shared with Besen, “when you’re lying scared on the table, look up; notice they even took the time to put tropical flowers above you so you’d have something beautiful to look at.” Details like this may be why customer satisfaction ranks high on the Center’s surveys. One can read all the brochures that an enterprise can produce, but take a look at their “Customer Satisfaction Surveys” for a glimpse of the real deal. The high marks do not surprise Director Gargano, who said: “The patients become like a family here. Everyone surrounds them with warm attention and highly professional care.”
Dr. Tinger commented that while the team is gratified by the many wonderful letters, cards and gifts received from patients and their families “after, and often during, their journey with us,” he is also appreciative “when someone has the courage to inform us how we can do things better.” That level of willingness to improve is another hallmark of a successful enterprise and further accounts for the exceptional quality care.
The counterpart to the treatment side at the Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center is the Health and Wellness Program, which, Dr. Tinger said, is part of the “continuum that helps a patient from any state of health or disease to a better state of health and wellness” and seeks to maximize the benefits of the cancer treatment.
Extending the Benefits of State-of-the-Art Cancer Care
Started in 2011 by Marilyn Leroy-Sterling, who is a nurse practitioner and serves as the program coordinator, the Health-and-Wellness Program owes its existence to the generous donation of a community member who wanted to ensure that all cancer patients have access to supportive therapies that have been shown to reduce stress and aid in the healing process. As a result of that gift and ongoing financial support from both Northern Westchester Hospital and other donors, patients have free access to the many services the program offers.
Marilyn Leroy-Sterling also serves as an integrative health coach, partnering with patients to help them deal with their health, nutrition, fitness and family concerns. On any given day, she might refer a patient to the medically monitored gym that the Hospital maintains at Chappaqua Crossing or to the nutritionist, who creates customized menus, or to the social worker or to the chaplain in the Mind For Wellness support team. Recognizing that writing can be a form of therapy, the program also offers an online journal-writing course.
Whether it’s setting goals or reaching them, Leroy-Sterling is available to help patients improve all aspects of their day-to-day life. In her words: “We provide a prescription to wellness.” Then, after patients complete the Health and Wellness Program, she gives them a comprehensive end-of-treatment summary that details their cancer history, diagnosis, treatment and an “evidence-based” follow-up plan of care—a roadmap to help the patient navigate successfully as a survivor.
Word has gotten out, and more and more cancer patients are participating in the Health and Wellness Program, which also receives high marks in the customer satisfaction surveys. This year, 100% of the respondents credited the program for reducing their stress levels. One such patient is Joanna Cirasella, who had aggressive breast cancer 18 months ago and expressed her appreciation this way in a video: “The love and nurturing are far beyond anything I could have imagined. Right now, I’m cancer free, and that’s all that matters. I could not have done this without them….”
What additional plans does the Center have?
Gargano said: her dream is to develop a survivorship program that further extends the benefits of the health and wellness program. Meanwhile, in the near future, a Health and Wellness Resource Center will be set up to give patients access to health journals and computers, along with practitioners who will be on hand to talk with them. That is another exciting development that will further the “continuum of care in a patient-centered, state-of-the-art community facility,” added Gargano.
Competent, Customized, Coordinated Care–big “C” meets its match in the many “C”s at the Center.
Vicki de Vries is a freelance writer/editor and educator living in Westchester “country.”
Excerpts from the many thank-you notes pinned to the Center’s bulletin board:
Thank you for giving me the strength, love, compassion to deal…One of your staff brought me to the Health and Wellness Program Coordinator.That was when the healing–beyond physical recovery–began for me as a whole person. I was gradually guided…to different people and services…. They helped me in ways I could never have imagined and made all the difference in the world….