If you look back at any of Dr. Dwight Fitch’s college notebooks, you probably won’t see any doodling in the margins.
By his own admission, Fitch isn’t an artist. As a kid, he didn’t long for a box of crayons, preferring instead to get lost in his own thoughts.
However, if you’re a cancer patient, Fitch’s freehand drawings may save your life.
As a radiation oncologist with 21st Century Oncology, Fitch uses some of the most advanced technology in the field to create radiation treatments for his patients. Those treatments include outlines — drawn by Fitch himself — that direct the radiation therapy to specific areas and, at times, around organs and other sensitive tissue.
Sure, the drawings likely won’t ever be featured in a museum or even a community art show. But for the hundreds of patients Fitch has treated, they’re the most important shapes and lines they know.
Working from the practice’s Lakewood Ranch office, Fitch also is piloting some of most advanced radiation techniques in the country, including high-doserate brachytherapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy and image-guided radiation therapy.
Passion for people
A native of Detroit, Fitch’s medical résumé showcases an impressive background: a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a medical degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; an internship and an onocology residency at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.; and service as chief resident during his final year in school.
But truthfully, Fitch’s true talent for the medical field began much earlier and in a much less obvious environment — the golf course. Fitch began working as a caddie at age 14 and says he uses skills he learned from that experience every day in his office.
“A huge part of my job is relationship-building,” Fitch says. “Most people want you to listen to them and care. You have to have a certain degree of understanding and empathy.
“I picked up a lot of that as a golf caddie. I did that for six years and met so many different types of people. I learned to read body language. I learned when to congratulate someone and also when not to say anything.”
Like many students, Fitch didn’t know his specialty when he entered medical school. He enjoyed both internal medicine and surgery but didn’t desire the long hours. Fitch finally discovered his calling one day during his rotation at Beaumont.
“I happened upon an oncology patient,” he remembers. “I really enjoyed working with those patients better. It’s such a privilege to be able to help in all aspects of people’s lives.”
After completing his residency, Fitch began looking for opportunities outside of Michigan. He had never lived outside of his home state and wanted a change for his wife and two children.
“The time was right,” he says. “I knew if I stayed in Michigan, I would never leave.”
Fitch found the perfect position at 21st Century Oncology and moved to the area in June 2006.
Ninety-eight percent of Fitch’s patients have cancer. Of those, most are advanced cases that already have run the gamut of other treatments. Often, Fitch is the last line of defense.
But that last line features some impressive weapons.
At Beaumont, he worked with some of the most advanced cancer treatment techniques and has brought that expertise to the East County. Lakewood Ranch Medical Center is one of only a few hospitals in Florida that offers Selective Internal Radiation Therapy to liver cancer patients. The treatment involves injecting millions of microscopic radioactive spheres into blood vessels feeding a tumor. The therapy essentially starves the cancer without damaging the liver. Since Fitch’s arrival, the hospital has treated about 90 patients and completed nearly 200 SIRT procedures — with many showing great success.
“Many of those patients are at stage four, so although we can’t cure them, we can increase both the length and the quality of their lives,” Fitch says.
In addition, Fitch also employs image-guided radiation therapy in his practice. As one of the newest technologies in cancer treatment, IGRT allows Fitch to use frequent three-dimensional images to better direct the radiation. From these images, Fitch can draw targets for the radiation and prescribe a treatment plan.
“Before, all we had were external markers,” he says. “But tumors change shape, organs change shape. Now, we can take a CT scan right on the table before the treatment (and adjust). It enables precision within millimeters.”
Not only does this help avoid damaging healthy tissue but also it allows Fitch to prescribe higher doses of radiation to fight aggressive tumors.
Even with the most cutting-edge technology at his fingertips, until he has a cure for cancer, Fitch knows his is a job in which perfection is impossible.
“Especially at the beginning, it can be a depressing job,” Fitch says. “Every outcome isn’t good, and we do have a lot of people pass away. (Because of this) I try to enjoy and cherish each day. Sometimes, the best-laid plans are destroyed by a headache.”
And unlike doctors in other specialties, oncologists see their patients over several months or even years. Because of this, Fitch often assumes the role of counselor — one he says makes his job that much more rewarding.
“I’m blessed to be able to care for my patients,” Fitch says. “I’ve met so many amazing people, and it’s been a treat to be involved.
“(When they meet me) everybody has the same question: How long do I have?” he says. “I tell them the same answer: I don’t have a crystal ball, but you either live zero or 100%. There’s no such thing as living 70%. Take each day as it comes. Cherish what you have now. Enjoy this day, today.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].