Jan. 18, 2006 – As workmen were busy disassembling the stage set up for Tuesday's dedication ceremony, visitors Wednesday were flocking into the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute to tour the new $18 million, 24,000-square-foot facility.
The institute was offering tours from7 a.m.to7 p.m., which will be the facility's regular hours.
Once inside the facility, the effect is like being back outside. The bright and cheerful lobby is enclosed by glass, with comfortable arrangements of couches and chairs here and there.
The staff seemed still invigorated from Tuesday's events. All through the Roy L. Schneider Hospital next door and in the institute, the talk was of little else.
Receptionist Debra Quetel greeted visitors, directing them to staff members who would then walk them through the new facility. As Quetel noted that there must have been about 100 visitors before noon, new groups were forming in the lobby.
Dr. Shirnett K. Williamson, director of radiation oncology, acted as our tour guide. Michael Burton, the hospital's public information officer, also accompanied us as he made a tour of the facility with his video camera.
Before starting, Burton pointed out an aquarium situated next to the staircase. "Look," he said, "there's real fish already." Indeed, bright tropical fish were making themselves at home inside, adding a soothing, personal touch to the room.
Williamson then pointed out the library, to the right of the front door. "Patients or visitors can come here for information – books, videos, the Internet. It's open all day."
Radiation oncology is done downstairs, and chemotherapy upstairs. We then moved to the radiation area, where construction work is still ongoing, though the workmen move around unobtrusively. A tumor registry and an office for the institute's "patient navigator" are on this floor. "We have hired Peggy Smith for the position," Williamson said. "After patients are referred by their physicians, she will talk with them and determine whom they need to see: a social worker, perhaps, or a pastor, or treatment specialist. She will help them connect."
Williamson then took us through the examination rooms, the nursing station, and through a 7-ton door into the radiation area.
The outside casings of the imposing-looking radiation machine were still lined against a wall. "We assembled it yesterday, just for photographic purposes, but now they are doing the final installation work," she said.
Williamson said it will take about six weeks to complete the installation and that they expect their first radiation patients in April.
She is delighted with one element of the examining rooms. "As soon as you walk in," she said, "the lights come on; it's part of an energy-saving program." Williamson said the average radiation treatment takes about five minutes. "You can come in, undress, take your treatment and be out of here in a half hour."
"There is no smell, no pain to the radiation treatments," Williamson said, "but there can be side effects. They are different for each part of the body. I tell each patient what they can expect, and I will see the patient once a week."
A small room with a viewing window contains a CAT scan machine, where patients are examined before radiation treatments. The information produced by the CAT scan is given to a docimetrist who will perform computations to deliver a prescribed radiation dose.
The building is painted in a light cream, with light green and blue accents throughout. "The colors are such nice touches, very soothing," Williamson said.
Off the lobby is the Appearance Center, where Donna Phillips, a cancer survivor, presides. The small shop is filled with shelves of wigs, hats, accessories, earrings and scarves. There are skin care products, beauty products, items for women, men and children.
"This is dear to my heart," Phillips said. "We try to give dignity back to the patients. I offer empathy; not sympathy." She added, "Lots of patients aren't open. It's a very private thing. I feel I can be fulfilled by helping them, and when I help them, I extend my own life. It's a new beginning for them."
Phillips knows whereof she speaks. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, she had to leave her three young children and move to Atlanta. "I didn't see them for six months," she said.
Prosthetics for breast cancer patients are fitted at the facility with a professional certified mastectomy fitter. "It's confidential and private," Phillips said.
Once upstairs we arrived at the 68-seat medical auditorium where "tele-medicine" will be performed. "We can hold conferences with specialists in the states," Williamson said. "We can listen to speakers talk about anything from nutrition to any aspect of cancer." There is also a screen outside in the lobby and another downstairs in the library.
Next, we came to "a room with a view." This is what hospital CEO Rodney Miller Jr. in his remarks Tuesday called the "chemotherapy suite." The suite has eight stations, each overlooking Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Each chemotherapy station is equipped with a TV/DVD unit and can be curtained off for privacy. There are two more private rooms in the back of the suite, and a pharmacy is located right there.
"Chemotherapy treatment varies," Williamson said. "It can last one hour or six. Some patients will come for one week, and then have three weeks off. And some can be done with pills." Upstairs also are consulting rooms for the medical oncologist and examining rooms for adult and pediatric patients.
Paintings donated by local artists will soon be displayed. "There's just a few now, by Lucinda Schutt," Williamson said. Miller had said on Tuesday that there were enough "for a small gallery."
Reflecting a bit, Williamson said, "This is a phenomenal field. I get so much out of it. I love going to work — really. It is emotionally healing for me, when I can help someone. At first they are so upset. They think: 'I can't believe this happened to me,' but by the end of their treatment you have built a bond," she said, "and when they are cured, that is the ultimate experience."
In her office just off the lobby, administrative director Renee Adams was still infused with the spirit that seems to emanate from all the staff. "Yesterday was a blessed day," she said. "We have one of the best teams I have ever worked with. We will provide world-class treatment and great customer service. We don't want any complaints."
Decorating the front of the building is a Healing Garden donated by Rotary Club of St. Thomas. Designed to give peace and privacy to patients and families while visiting or awaiting treatments , the garden surrounds a gushing stone fountain, tropical flora and benches.
One side of the building's front is still a dirt yard, awaiting plantings, and outside work is ongoing. Burton said crews worked "day and night" to get the building ready for the dedication. "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the gulf really slowed our getting lots of supplies," he explained. He said the outside of the building should be finished by the end of the month.
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