Remarks given on the occasion of the University of Maryland School of Medicine reception honoring Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum for the gift to endow a professorship in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Greenebaum Cancer Center.
Cancer survivor Carol Filler (in pink) with, from left: Kevin Cullen, M.D., cancer center director; Mohan Suntha, M.D.; Marlene Greenebaum; Stewart Greenebaum; James Filler; Dean Donald Wilson, M.D.
First, I would like to thank Stewart Greenebaum for offering me the opportunity to speak tonight. In preparing for this evening, the harsh reality hit that only with the treatment I received here do I have the ability to speak.
Jimmy and I were introduced to the Greenebaums by my sister-in-law, Pat Goldman and her husband, Howard. We now have the pleasure of calling Stewart and Marlene our friends. We all know of individuals who make sizable contributions to their favorite charities and institutions; but, we seldom know them personally. I can truly say that Stewart and Marlene are the most generous philanthropists I personally know. Not only are Stewart and Marlene so generous with their funding; they also get involved and participate to ensure that the highest standards are upheld.
When Stewart first gave Jimmy a tour of the new cancer center several years ago, he explained what technology the Greenebaum Cancer Center offered that placed it above the others. Jimmy's enthusiasm was obvious when he relayed this information to me. All of this was available because of Stewart and Marlene's generosity.
Little could we know, or even imagine, that I would be the beneficiary of such technology right here at the University of Maryland. Although many beautiful buildings and state-of-the-art equipment help patients deal with their various kinds of cancer, the thing that sets the Greenebaum Cancer Center apart from the others is the Human Factor. That is why I have chosen to address that aspect. Without doubt, that is what truly makes this cancer treatment facility better than any other in the world: the Human Factor of the wonderful individuals who treat and assist the cancer patients.
March, two years ago, our friend and doctor, Morton Goldfarb, conveyed the news to us that I had squamous cell carcinoma at the base of my tongue in my throat, in my tonsil pillar, and in the right lymph nodes in my neck. As we sat at his office desk the next day, scheduling the PET scan to determine if the cancer was elsewhere, he asked if I had a plan or facility in mind of where I would like to interview for treatment options.
One would assume that, with a world class treatment center little more than a ten minute drive from my front door, I would have chosen to go to the University of Alabama in Birmingham. But something within me knew I wanted to come here, and I answered, "The University of Maryland is my first choice." Stewart’s call to Dr. Kevin Cullen explained that he would be receiving a call from Dr. Goldfarb. Dr. Cullen agreed to see us that week. Our visit was comfort at first sight. I knew right away that indeed this was where I was coming. Dr. Cullen answered every possible question and scenario, and even offered options closer to home if we could not temporarily move to Baltimore for treatment. But for me it was easy; here is where I wanted to be.
I proceeded to meet Dr. Robert Ord, a wonderful oral surgeon who explained that only a short time ago, "barn-door" surgery would have been the preferred first option, dramatically altering my quality of life. However, with new information and technology, fortunately there are other -- and better -- options available. The surgery could now be my last resort.
My path briefly crossed with Dr. Mohan Suntha while I was waiting for the first closed MRI of my life. Jimmy said I should start my praises of Dr. Suntha with, "What do a light bulb and Dr. Suntha have in common?" That’s too easy. For all who have had the pleasure of meeting Mohan know that he is never without his radiant smile that lights up the room. In my consultation with Dr. Suntha, he told me that he was going to make me very sick, and then he would make me well. That was all I needed to hear. I couldn’t wait to get started, thinking the sooner I start, the sooner I'll finish. I didn’t dream that during this time, I would establish a friendship that I anticipate will be with me throughout my life. That is the kind of profound impact Dr. Mohan Suntha makes on most every human being he meets.
This is where the Human Factor comes into play -- not just for me, but every patient who enters the Greenebaum Cancer Center. Obviously, the equipment is only as good as the individuals who make the calculations, administer the treatments, and indeed, sometimes service the machines. The best thing the University of Maryland Department of Radiation Oncology has going for it is that you have the very, very BEST in Dr. Suntha and his qualified assistants.
When we patients stepped into the dressing room to change into hospital gowns for our treatment, the economic, ethnic, social, and religious differences we might have suddenly disappeared. We now had one thing in common. We had decided to fight to live, and our future was now in someone else’s hands. We were ALL treated with compassion, were given the best of care, and most importantly, were given encouragement!
When you see someone every day, except weekends, for 39 days of treatment, it makes one aware of the individuals and their stories. For instance, I don't know Cathy's last name, but this was her second bout with cancer and her first time with University of Maryland. Her parents were there for her, but she still attempted to go to work following her treatments.
For the lady with the strong accent, this was her second bout, having gone somewhere else the first time. She had no one with her, so at the end of her treatments, the staff and technicians all gave her hugs and wished her well along with all of us who had come to know her.
There was the quiet man in the wheelchair always clutching the very used towel. There was the lady from Las Vegas with the baseball cap who was already living on borrowed time, according to her doctors in Las Vegas. But she was anxious to show them what the University of Maryland had done in extending her life. My point to you is that the Human Factor plays such an important part in treatment and recovery.
Dr. Suntha’s attitude and demeanor set the tone for the Radiation Oncology Department. His kindness and enthusiasm spreads through the unit like rings made by a pebble thrown into a pond. He is infectious! He's the person who just took the "red eye" flight to get home to be with his sick child, and shows up at work with a smile and encouragement for his patients. He’s the wonderful person administering such care to his patients, and yet can carry that same enthusiasm over to the three-hour dance recital with his daughter performing for all of a few minutes. That kind of dedication radiates to his staff.
For instance, we followed his nurse practitioner, Tiffany, through her pregnancy and the birth of her beautiful daughter. Nursing supervisor, Donna, endured knee surgery and recovery during this time. It was amazing how even with their own discomforts, they were smiling and always eager to help make our visits more tolerable. Dr. Peter Darwin in gastroenterology was not shaken when I threw up on his beautiful tie, which embarrassed me tremendously! He just smiled and said it was an occupational hazard and don't worry about it.
It is the small things that this team does without a second thought that make an agonizing illness bearable. It is my feeling that Dr. Suntha inspires by example. In my opinion, he is the mold that other physicians should aspire to fit into. Another speaker could go on and on about Dr. Suntha's medical credentials, honors, and qualifications. But even the smartest student, resident, or doctor can best be shown by Dr. Suntha's example how to really treat patients, especially those who may have had their life, or quality of life, on the line. As they become part of the University of Maryland’s Department of Radiation Oncology, these students, residents, and doctors should follow those I have come in contact with, and try to meet the emotional as well as the medical needs of their patients.
Needless to say, I will be forever grateful for the care I received and for the valuable relationships that were created during my illness. In my opinion, there are five components necessary to create the possibility of surviving cancer. A person should have:
. . . a person can survive.
I was blessed with all five of these. And then there is the Human Factor -- the prayers, support and love of my family and friends.
In closing, I want to thank Kim Suntha for sharing her wonderful husband, and I thank precious Kieran and Cammy for sharing their wonderful father.
In conclusion, from all the Carols, Cathys, Johns, wheelchair and baseball cap people, thank you from the bottom of our hearts, for all the added days with our loved ones and the quality of life we thought might be gone forever. In fact, thank you for our very lives. We thank you and we love you! God Bless!