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‘Being at home’: Wallace Cancer Institute to be a one-stop shop for cancer treatment

By Liz Moomey
liz.moomey@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — This summer, cancer treatment all will be under one roof at Wallace Cancer Institute.

The 32,000-square-foot building will combine Novant Health’s radiation oncology and medical oncology departments along with others services to create what those affiliated with the project hope will be a home-like experience to cancer treatment. Bill Wagoner, Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Board trustee and co-chair of the capital campaign, says the company wants to limit the “institutional feel.”

Because of a dry couple of months in 2019, the project is ahead of schedule. Wallace Cancer Institute is scheduled to be patient-ready in August.

The institute is one story, with a portico that three cars can be under. Patients or their caregivers also can park in a lot next to the institute. It’s designed to accommodate a second story in the future.

Rick Parker, executive director of Rowan Medical Center Foundation, said the institute will be a one-stop shop and improve care for cancer patients.

“We had great services, but having them in basically four different locations was not great care coordination,” Parker said.

The foundation’s community leader Tracy Smith said the institute will improve physicians’ ability to treat cancer, too.

“It’s going to give them the tools, give them the most advanced technology and equipment,” Smith said. “They’re so good at what they do. I put them against anyone. This is just going to complement what they are already doing.”

Inside the institute

This summer, when a patient or a caretaker walks through the front door, he or she will see a flood of natural light. The institute will be divided: radiation oncology (cancer treatment using radiation) on the left and medical oncology, which uses medications to treat cancer, on the right.

On the radiation oncology side, there will be a piece of equipment in a “vault” known as a linear accelerator and exam rooms. It’s surrounded by thick, concrete walls and has space nearby for a second such device if growth requires it.

One of the many pieces of new equipment, the new linear accelerator will have X-ray capability to target the tumor and direct the radiation. It will require a shorter amount of time “on the table.”

For patients, said radiation oncologist Dr. Greg Mitro, that means better treatment than current equipment that dates back to 2005. Mitro said the machine can have outcomes similar to surgery and decrease the amount of radiation treatments significantly.

The liner accelerator will also allow Novant Health Rowan to treat more people. Because its current equipment is outdated, the facility has to refer more than 30 patients to a different cancer facility every year. Novant Health Rowan treated 575 cancer patients in 2018. 

“That’s one of the big changes with the equipment. We’re going to be able to do a specialized form of radiation that in the past five or six years has become standard, and right now we can’t do it at all,” Mitro said.

On the other side of the building, where medical oncology is, exterior-facing rooms will look out to to the Hurley Healing Garden. Windows span entire walls, giving a ground-to-sky view of the garden, which will have plants to attract butterflies and birds and seating for caretakers.

Chemotherapy treatments can last six hours.

Dr. William “Brink” Brinkley, a medical oncologist, said the institute will allow for privacy and comfort.

At the current cancer center, patients ask for an exterior room to look outside.

“When you look out, the traffic on Mahaley Avenue will be blocked, secondly you will be seeing gardens and maybe people walking or caregivers sitting around,” Wagoner said.

The medical oncology portion also has exam rooms as well.

The front of the building will contain support services. 

Doctor’s orders

People working on the project say its design is focused on the patient. Designers have worked with Mitro and Brinkley since the start.

“How do we want to design the interior so that a patient’s experience is as close to being at home?” Wagoner asked.

Brinkley said their input ranged from picking patterns for furniture to creating a calming and relaxing environment. They were never balked at, Brinkley said.

Mitro said patient flow was important. Currently at the radiation oncology office, there is one hallway. There is no dressing room at existing facilities; patients have to change in the room with the radiation treatment, get redressed and walk back in the hallway to their room.

“One of the prime things we thought about was the patient flow,” Mitro said. “How are patients going to check in? How are they going to go back to the machine for treatment? Where are they going to change? Where are they going to exit? Because it’s definitely not optimal.”

Smith said Brinkley was straight-forward as to what would be beneficial to the cancer patients.

“Every attention to detail has been taken to make this as comfortable, not only for the patient, but for those caregivers,” Smith said.

The medical oncology wing will have its own exit to prevent patients who just received hours of chemo from having their immune systems compromised.

Wagoner said workers on the project tried to reduce negatives and anxiety that already come with cancer. 

“You can only reduce so many, but boy you can go a long way,” Wagoner said. “That is a part of the driving design side of the project.”

Time saving and lifesaving

Smith said the one-stop shop will allow doctors and nurses to communicate better and reduce the amount of time cancer patients and caregivers spend traveling to different facilities in Salisbury. 

“It is so frustrating for cancer patients and their families right now,” Smith said. “They go one spot for x service and then they have to go maybe across town for something in addition. Maybe there is a third stop. This institute is full service, one-stop shop.”

It’s going to be an “incredible thing” for this community, Mitro said.

“I really think there are people here that travel outside for treatment because they don’t see the kind of quality we have,” he said, ” … It will change things when people realize they can come here and get the same care they can get anywhere else in one place at the cancer institute.”

Bill Graham, an attorney who’s represented cancer patients and incoming chairman of the Rowan Medical Center Foundation, said the cancer institute will be life-saving.

Some folks, Graham said, decline treatment because they don’t want to go to other cities such as Charlotte or Winston-Salem.

“They die, plain and simple,” he said. “ … You have a lot of people in this community that are elderly, their spouse is deceased, their children live in Texas, Florida or Wisconsin. This is going to be a life-saving event for them because now they can get to their treatment. The same chemo that is at Duke is the same chemo that is here.”

Parker said the facility will attract patients outside of the county that don’t want to drive to a big city.

Clinical trials will be possible at the new institute, too. 

A giving community

As of Friday afternoon, the community had raised $11.08 million for the Wallace Cancer Institute. From $2 to several-figure donations, more than 1,200 people have donated.

“I guess that speaks the fact that probably there’s no one around that hasn’t been touched by cancer somehow,” Wagoner said.

The goal is $12 million from community donations. Novant pledged a minimum of $12 million in addition to community donations in capital for construction and equipment.

Along with the $12 million, Novant matches gifts $25,000 or greater.

Parker said it’s incredible that so many have been willing to give.

“This community. I can’t say enough of the philanthropy and support,” Parker said.

Parker added some have stepped forward to contribute knitted items, like hats or covers for seat belts, in cases where they can’t provide money.

The community, Brinkley said, is making the Wallace Cancer Institute possible. 

Those interested in learning how to donate, can call 704-210-6880. For more information, visit nhcancercenter.org.

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