FARRELL – Not long ago, as Al Boland told the story, a man brought his wife for cancer treatment at UPMC Horizon Shenango Valley hospital in Farrell.
The man had been familiar with the hospital’s cancer treatment center — he was recently retired as a custodian who cleaned that part of the hospital, said Boland, vice president of operations for UPMC Jameson and the UPMC Horizon hospitals in Farrell and Greenville.
But the newly renovated Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Horizon Shenango Valley took him by surprise.
“He was impressed with the way it looked, with the treatment options available,” Boland said.
UPMC has invested approximately $12 million to upgrade cancer treatment facilities at UPMC Horizon in Farrell and Greenville. The two Mercer County hospitals, and UPMC Jameson in New Castle, all provide cancer treatment in UPMC’s Mercer-Lawrence county region.
The idea, said Stephanie Dutton, chief operating officer and vice president of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, is to offer as much of the Pittsburgh-based Hillman services without forcing patients to travel to Pittsburgh.
“The ultimate focus of our community cancer program is just that, community,” she said. “The patient should not have to leave their community for the bulk of their treatment.”
UPMC’s Greenville and New Castle hospitals offer medical oncology treatment, which primarily focuses on chemotherapy. The Farrell center provides medical oncology services and radiation oncology. Cutting-edge stem cell and CAR-T cell immunotherapy treatments are provided only at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood.
Dutton said the process, whether at Greenville or Farrell, or in Pittsburgh, is patient-driven.
“It’s really individualized for each patient and each cancer and tumor type.”
The regional facilities enable Mercer and Lawrence county residents to gain access to the most advanced cancer treatments and clinical trials involving treatments not yet in the mainstream, Dutton said.
Hillman Cancer Center is among 49 designated cancer centers in the United States and the only designated center in western Pennsylvania, according to the National Cancer Institute, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The research focus is geared not only toward finding new treatments, Dutton said, but also in finding ways to use existing protocols more effectively.
“If you can treat a cancer with radiation therapy in 25 treatments instead of 35, that’s an improvement in quality of life,” she said.
When the renovation projects are complete, UPMC Horizon Greenville will have four examination rooms and 15 treatment bays. The new oncology section will occupy 10,802 square feet inside the hospital, more than triple the current size, now located off the hospital grounds.
The Greenville center also will have a pharmacy, where chemotherapy treatments will be prepared for patients.
At UPMC Horizon Shenango Valley, the treatment capacity will go from two examination rooms and six treatment bays, to five examination rooms and 17 treatment bays.
Boland said the three regional hospitals serve as “doorways” to the same treatments and protocols offered at the system’s Pittsburgh-based hospitals like UPMC Presbyterian or the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
“The big thing is, the commitment is the same from a treatment standpoint,” he said.
And that goes for both the Hillman Cancer Center and the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, which has a regional center at UPMC Jameson in New Castle and provides services at the two Mercer County hospitals.
The Heart and Vascular Institute is not just a job for Dr. Beth Piccione, vice president of medical affairs at UPMC Jameson and the institute’s northern tier regional director. It’s a passion borne of her family’s history of heart disease.
“My family is riddled with people who died in their 50s of heart attacks,” Piccione said.
Her father, Thomas, came close to being one of the family statistics. He began having heart problems while still in his 40s — when Beth was a teenager. By the age of 55, Thomas needed an internal defibrillator to regulate his heart rate.
The problem advanced so far that Thomas Piccione, then a Lawrence County Common Pleas Court judge, had to wear a device, under his judicial robes, for dispensing heart medication.
For Beth Piccione, the family cardiac history, and her father’s experience in particular, was a motivating factor in her occupational decision to pursue a career as a cardiologist. By the time her father underwent his heart transplant in 2015 at the age of 69, she was already established in the field.
“I lived through every stage (of heart disease),” she said. “I know how alone and vulnerable you can feel.”
Piccione’s hard-won understanding is a motivating factor in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s cardiac and cancer treatment initiatives in the region.
She said all but the most complicated patients — those in need of open heart surgery or transplants — can be seen at one of the three regional facilities, often at UPMC Jameson’s Heart and Vascular Institute.
When she talks about heart problems, Piccione borrows analogies from the building trades. The heart is like a house, while the vascular system is akin to its plumbing. She said the analogies make descriptions of heart disease more relatable to patients and their families.
At the Heart and Vascular Institute, she said UPMC takes care of both the structure and the plumbing within the region with services ranging from testing to angioplasty and other low-risk procedures.
And even when patients from Mercer and Lawrence counties need to have procedures performed in Pittsburgh, their preparatory appointments and follow-up care is performed within the region.
Thanks to surgical advancements, those more-complicated procedures usually require shorter hospital stays at the Pittsburgh surgical centers. With heart valve replacements for example, doctors take what might seem to be the long way around — they enter the vascular system through an artery in the leg.
But Piccione said that is the most direct path. The leg artery is relatively close to the skin surface and advances in surgical technique allow surgeons to follow that route directly to the heart.
“We enter the body at a place where the pipes are easy to get to,” she said.
But another consideration is even more important. Traditional valve replacement operations required cutting through the chest into the heart, increased risk of post-operative complications and a lengthy seven-to-10-day recovery period.
With the microscopic procedures, Piccione said recovery is much faster and with less potential for infections and other problems.
“When you have a valve replaced through the leg, you can go home the next day,” she said. “It’s a game-changer.”
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