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East County Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 2 weeks ago

Staff, patients sign walls of incoming cancer care facility

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Sarasota Memorial Health Care System's Radiation Oncology Center is slated for completion in August 2020
by: Brendan Lavell General Assignment Reporter

More than 38% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute. Sarasota Memorial Health Care System is doing its part to ensure that local cancer patients will have all the treatment they need nearby their own doorsteps.

The medical center celebrated a milestone Thursday for the construction of its $27 million Radiation Oncology Center, located on University Parkway. With its two linear accelerator vaults nearly complete, SMH invited cancer patients, doctors, nurses and other staff, as well as construction workers, contractors and donors, to sign messages of hope and remembrance on the wall of one of the vaults.

A rendering of what one of the linear accelerator vaults will look like upon its completion. Staff and patients signed one of the walls of the vault Thursday. (Courtesy of Sarasota Memorial Health Care System)

The linear accelerators are used for external beam radiation, which “destroys cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact,” an SMH press release stated. The vaults surrounding them have been reinforced with about 5.2 million pounds of concrete. This prevents radiation from leaving the vault, Cancer Care Services Medical Director Richard Brown said.

“In front of you are walls,” Brown said before the signings. “They are hard. They are cold. And they are weighty. They are specifically designed that way to shield the individuals who are outside the walls. But vaults also exist to protect what we hold precious inside. Today, we try to find the words and positive thoughts to permeate that concrete and … make them feel warmer, softer and less weighty to those individuals whose future lies within.”

Many people, Brown included, spoke on the importance of community in regard to treating cancer patients. After all, the concept of a supportive community was the driving force behind the idea of a wall signing, according to SMH Cancer Institute Director Kelly Batista.

“We truly feel that patients are best treated in the community,” Brown said. “Cancer is a really, really hard thing. Hard in terms of the symptoms, hard in terms of the side effects, and having to go elsewhere just makes that journey that much more difficult. Let’s try and make it as easy as possible for them.”

Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation trustee Bob Martin, also the fifth-generation owner of Boar’s Head, agreed. He mentioned the loss of Boar’s Head’s Head of Information Security, Jay Koopman, to brain cancer as one battle that had an effect on him.

“We needed to be involved (with this facility),” Martin said. “We’re a large employer in the area, and our people need the best care. Again, if something happens, we want them to be able to be treated here at home.”

Heartfelt messages from staff and patients spread across the wall of one of two linear accelerator vaults of the almost-completed Radiation Oncology Center. The facility is scheduled to be treating patients by August 2020.

Brown wrote two messages on the wall, one to two former colleagues who died of malignancies and one to his cousin, Kenny Freed, who died of melanoma.

“It was cathartic almost,” Brown said. “I was telling them I missed them and I was telling them their healing powers are still needed in spirit. … My cousin has four daughters who got married and had nine grandchildren. And they all absolutely, positively adored him. And all his personality and heart can be seen within them. And also for me personally, just watching what he went through means I have to try harder in making sure that cancer patients get the care they need.

“Hopefully future patients will know (these messages) are here.”

When the facility is complete, it will become the first radiation oncology center at SMH. Batista said it will fill one of the missing pieces of the medical center’s cancer care: radiation therapy. It is scheduled to be ready to treat patients by August 2020.

Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

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