A few weeks ago Jenna Campagna and I had the privilege of sitting down with members of the support staff at the Mesothelioma Treatment Center in Houston, Texas. The Mesothelioma Treatment Center (MTC) at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center was established by Dr. David Sugarbaker. His goal was to create an all-encompassing treatment center for mesothelioma patients.
Dr. David Sugarbaker is possibly the most well-known mesothelioma specialist, but he’s not the only reason to consider Baylor’s MTC for your care: the support staff is amazing. On our visit they walked us through the presentation they give new patients and the services they provide. We were thoroughly impressed. Here are the 5 most surprising things we learned on the visit:
You’ll Be Walking Right After Surgery
The most difficult part of mesothelioma surgery is often the recovery process. MTC is dedicated to making the transition from surgery back to regular life go as smoothly as possible.“They have exercise physiologists that follow those patients and get them up almost immediately,” Teri told us, describing the hospital’s resources.
To accomplish his goal of having his patients walk soon after surgery, Dr. Sugarbaker designed a walker that can hold oxygen tanks, IVs, tubes, and even has a seat for when patients get tired. His invention is affectionately nicknamed, “the Sugarbaker-mobile” by the support staff. A patient once described it as looking like a spaceship.
Dr. Sugarbaker makes daily walks a priority for patients recovering from surgery. He often calls their nurses and caretakers in the hospital to make sure they’ve walked a few times each day. Successful recovery is one of patients’ biggest concerns and Dr. Sugarbaker makes it a priority. Most patients don’t ever even need to be put on oxygen tanks.“You would think that with such a big surgery most of those patients would go to have to require rehab but they don’t,” Teri said.
They Have a Dietitian on Staff (And She Won’t Judge You)
When creating the center, Dr. Sugarbaker was very adamant about having a nutritionist or a dietitian on the team. The MTC’s dietitian has a surprisingly relaxed method for improving her patients’ diets.“You know I say, please do not be afraid of what’s coming for you. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not taking away your favorite foods,” Cheryl Bixby, the staff clinical dietitian, said, “Our patients don’t need more stress, they don’t need more restrictions.”
Dr. Sugarbaker’s diet plan for his patients is a high protein and low sugar diet. Cheryl stressed to us that this is not meant to be restrictive. Oftentimes patients lose a lot of weight while dealing with mesothelioma so she doesn’t want to restrict them from eating enough.“I like telling everyone she’s most non-judgmental dietitian in the world,” Tony Leachman, the staff chaplain, said about Cheryl.
Her focus is mostly on making sure patients consume enough protein before surgery to help them heal during the recovery process. After surgery, Cheryl will go into more detail with patients about anti-cancer diet.
You Can Get an Appointment ASAP
Baylor’s MTC appointments are made quickly and for the soonest possible time. According to their website, they pledge to have an appointment scheduled within 24 hours of being contacted.“For the first appointment we try to get them in as soon as possible. So [Dr. Sugarbaker] sees new patients usually on Tuesday as that’s his main clinic day. If we have a patient call Friday and say they can make it Tuesday we’ll get them in,” Chelsea told us.
Often, patients are shocked by how soon they can get in and have to ask for a later appointment.“We end up rescheduling a lot of them just so that they can arrange their flights and get things together but we always do offer them the first available and for the meso patients it’s always the first appointment that they can make it to. We never put them on a waitlist,” Chelsea said.
Patients are told to plan on staying a week for their appointment. Dr. Sugarbaker schedules them for a biopsy and other diagnostic tests during this time so they don’t have to travel back and forth. After that week of testing, patients are told to go home while the results are being processed. If they’re a surgical candidate they will usually be able to return for surgery within a few weeks.“We try not to make anybody wait because we know how stressful it is,” Chelsea explained.
The Chaplain Isn’t What You’d Expect“My role is supportive… I don’t try to make you all change camps or join a camp I just try to be available to you so you can talk things out,” Tony Leachman, the staff chaplain, explains about his role.
The chaplains role isn’t always what people expect. Tony explained to us that he is mainly there to support patients, regardless of their religious beliefs. He’s not trying to convert patients and he’s not just there for the bad times, he’s part of MTC’s support system for mesothelioma patients.“I’m not here to convert you… But I’m also not here like on television where it seems like you’re the angel of death or something and you just show up when there’s bad news. That’s not the case either,” Tony told us.
Tony also explained that chaplains working at the medical center have to go through extensive education and training. Chaplains need to complete a master’s degree, a year of clinical pastoral education, and a year-long board certification process with a national religious organization.“We’ve been trained to work with them where they’re at,” he said.
You Can Meet a Mesothelioma Survivor
A mesothelioma survivor is usually part of the presentation for new patients. Since most patients come to see Dr. Sugarbaker on Tuesday, there is usually someone coming in for a yearly check-up. Patients who have been through the treatment process with Dr. Sugarbaker can help the new patients understand what they’re about to experience.“Hearing it from us is different than hearing from someone who’s actually lived through it,” Chelsea explained.
Occasionally a testimonial patient isn’t available but the support staff still makes an effort to help new patients connect to other mesothelioma patients. Some of their experienced patients are happy to take phone calls from other patients.
They will also take time to connect patients to someone who has been through a similar situation. For example, if a patient is going through a recurrence, the staff will try to connect the patient to someone else who has dealt with a recurrence.“We try to meet the patients and link them to people who have similar situations,” Teri said.