Health June 28, 2016

Mountain Might to Infuse the Fight

St. Luke’s Brings Cancer Care Closer to Home

The latest addition to St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center’s (SLWRMC) ever-expanding suite of healthcare services—the Oncology Infusion Center—is focused not only on bringing to Valley residents and visitors cancer drug infusions, but other intravenous and oral treatments as well. For the newly expanded center opened in June, timing couldn’t be better: in April, the previous facility delivered more infusions in a day than it had any day in its entire seven-year history.

Infusion services in the Valley began humbly with the February 2009 remodeling of space adjacent to the emergency department. In 2010, infusion services had 65 patient visits. By 2014, SLWRMC staffed 1,039 infusion appointments, and, in 2015, visits were up 35 percent.

This dramatic rise mirrors what is happening nationally: cancer will soon beat out heart disease as the number one cause of death in the United States. Incidence in Idaho in 2012 was 437 per 100,000 people based on the 2000 Census, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which translates into approximately 100 Valley locals with cancer.

The new space for the Oncology Infusion Center is a welcome improvement for patients and the talented and compassionate staff that has been providing care in tight quarters for over seven years. With four infusion chairs, a comfortable waiting room and views of the mountains, the Center mirrors the tranquil atmosphere of the women’s imaging suite, another place where uncomfortable truths are faced.

“We are thrilled by the overwhelming generosity of the community, which (is making) our new Oncology Infusion Center a reality,” said Megan Thomas, chief development officer for the St. Luke’s Wood River Foundation. Thomas said that word of the great care at St. Luke’s has spurred more visitors and second homeowners to take advantage of the hospital’s infusion services.

The death rate for cancer is dropping, the CDC says, but, with our aging population, more people are sick. Some patients are considered cured after five years of cancer-free diagnosis. Reality for others is pain management through the hell of a terminal diagnosis. In all cases, care for loved ones as close to home as possible is the goal, offered Marvin Miles, the oncology nurse better known as Mouse. Miles’ boundless energy has established a healing environment, which many say helps foster solidarity and unequivocal support for patients, their friends and family.

Medication—oral and intravenous—can cost thousands of dollars per month. Part of St. Luke’s service is in maintaining a litany of specialized and expensive drugs made immediately available at the hospital pharmacy, a boon to patients and the local economy. The center can also be used to treat chronic infections, immune deficiencies, Lyme’s disease, Crohn’s disease, colitis, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

“The space is beautiful and will greatly improve the patient experience,” said Megan Dawson, a Foundation board member, interior designer and patient who had Remicade infusions for about a decade to treat her rheumatoid arthritis. “I probably would have had to go to Twin Falls once a month. The drive and sitting there for three or four hours for the infusion would have taken up so much time when I could have been at work. That’s tough, because the drugs are so expensive.”

The biggest plus: fewer patients have to leave town—that alone shrinks cancer’s shadow.

“Cutting travel time for treatment is a huge piece,” said Joy Prudek, St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center communications spokesperson. “A six to eight hour medical trip is hard on the patient, and it’s hard on the support person.”

Not unlike sanitariums of the bygone tuberculosis era, mountain retreats have a new kind of draw but still offer therapeutic benefits.

“We all like to believe that there are healing components to our Valley in this landscape and in our community,” Thomas said. “The goal is to provide a healing environment while getting treatment. We know there are people who may not come to the Valley if they don’t have access to these services.”

Mountain States Tumor Institute (MSTI),  based in the Treasure Valley, absorbed the oncology department in Twin Falls about a decade ago under the direction of St. Luke’s Dr. Charles Smith, a 40-year Boise resident and traveling doctor who is part of a decades-long push to bring cancer care closer to home for all Idahoans. With the new center, Dr. Smith travels to Ketchum on the first and third Thursdays of the month to back up the nursing team and Dr. Dan Fairman, an internal medicine doctor who oversees the center.

“In Ketchum, during the summer, there are a lot of patients who come in from elsewhere. We knew they were out there, but I was surprised at the numbers,” said Smith, who is originally from Nebraska. “They come in, and they are on chemotherapy through another organization. They may need their drugs on August 10 (in Ketchum). Theoretically, they can do that now.”

Highest-level cancer treatment is unlikely to come to Ketchum because it’s too small to support the infrastructure and staff necessary for radiation therapy and surgery. With prostate and breast cancer, more common cases, however, once baseline treatment is established, patients can receive ongoing care in the Wood River Valley.

Dr. Fairman shared an example of a lung cancer patient unlikely to be cured, but, with ongoing infusions, his health is stable, and he will continue to enjoy Sun Valley’s mountain biking for a long time.

“People are indeed living with cancer longer,” Smith said. “They require occasional intermittent treatment and, then, most of the time, they function perfectly well. They do need monitoring and occasionally do need some sort of intervention.”

Better lifestyles and individualized chemotherapy cocktails are reasons people are more readily surviving, liver cancer aside. Liver cancer numbers are up due to the complicating factors of hepatitis and other liver diseases like alcoholism.

“Overall survival is very, very good,” Smith said. “We are looking at curing, or survival rates, of, say, 60 percent now, compared to 30 or 40 years ago when it was about 20 to 25 percent.”

In worst-case scenarios, patients can be evacuated to a higher level of care, but locally managed care, drugs and testing are a boon for patients and the Blaine County economy.

“We won’t be everything to everyone,” Thomas said. “But we will keep more people from our Valley off the roads.”

This article appears in the Summer 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.