Cancer center near completion, gaining new patients

REED CITY — Soon, cancer patients in the northern Michigan region will have a renewed sense of hope and comfort thanks to a treatment center closer to home.

Construction is on schedule for the new Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center, located on Patterson Road near Reed City Hospital. The $8.9 million state-of-the-art, patient-focused facility is set to open later this summer, with a ribbon cutting ceremony and public tours scheduled for Sept. 19.

The center includes a 9,000 square-foot addition off the current Crossroads Radiation Therapy Center as well as a redesign of the existing building. New state-of-the-art technology will replace existing technology and all phases of cancer diagnosis and treatment will be brought together under one roof.

One of the leading pieces of machinery utilized at the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center is a $3.2 million Varian Truebeam linear accelerator, which is used for external beam radiation treatments for all parts and organs of the body through high-energy X-rays. It is the most advanced acceleration technology in the region and creates 4-D images in 90 seconds or less, and produces precise data for localization, beam definition and identification. In addition, it significantly reduces the amount of time a patient is undergoing treatment, which can eliminate patient anxiety and increase their comfort.

“The accelerator has additional energies that we didn’t have before and most machines can’t produce this many penetrating energies,” said Robert Smereka, chief medical physicist at Spectrum Health. “This is cutting edge.”

To support and protect the machine’s weight and capabilities, special flooring and seven-foot thick concrete walls had to be built. To treat patients, the body of the machine can rotate to either side. Patients are under the observation of three cameras and an intercom system allows for communication. Between 30 and 40 patients can be treated every day.

In addition to the linear accelerator, there will be a new CT simulator, an infusion and chemotherapy department, cancer resource center, and an on-site pharmacy. A wellness center, including an area for massage therapy and acupuncture, a wig shop, multiple waiting rooms to enhance patient privacy, office space for radiation and hematology oncology physicians practices will also be available.

The infusion and chemotherapy area, which will be up and running as early as July 15, can care for 15 patients at one time and is overlooked by nurses’ stations. Patients have the ability to view the outdoors while receiving treatment, stream wireless Internet to their electronic devices or watch television. A private room that can be closed for patients is available as well.

“This is simply amazing. It’s set up for efficiency and it’s set up to look nice,” Smereka said. “We will have the best infusion center.”

Apart from chemotherapy, the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center can assist individuals needing treatment for other diseases where infusions are needed.

The opening of the facility will complement the cancer center in Big Rapids and Spectrum Reed City chief operating officer and Mecosta County Medical Center CEO Sam Daugherty said he believes chemotherapy and infusions will eventually take place in Reed City while consultation will continue to take place in Big Rapids.

“Big Rapids might lose a little revenue and Reed City might gain a little, but when Spectrum looks at their cancer program and how it affects them financially, it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Daugherty, noting the competitive attitude no longer exists. “It’s the coming together of the two communities to do this as a whole as opposed to being competitive.”

Although the facility is not yet open, Spectrum Reed City Director of Cancer Services Irene Balowski said patient numbers are increasing from counties including Wexford, Mason, Manistee and Benzie. About 360 people already have been referred as new radiation therapy and medical oncology patients.

“I have seen in the last six months more from Mason County, and that would include the Ludington hospital,” Balowski said. “They know it’s here and now they’re coming.”

Daugherty said additional draw is coming from south of Lake and Osceola counties, which are secondary service areas.

“In 11 months, we’ve seen increases much higher than we expected already,” said Daugherty.

Balowski said the center is an improvement that stirs many emotions because staff will be able to work in a spacious, high-tech environment where staff members can better serve patients. The focus continues to be centered around experience for the patient.

“This center is going to turn the darkness off (for the patients),” Balowski added excitedly. “I brought one of the nurses over into the infusion center and she stood there and she started crying. I mean really, that’s how we all feel. There is nothing we can’t do here.”

The entire project has been a “labor of love” for all involved, she said with emotion.

Not only is the construction on schedule, but it is also under budget thanks to what Daugherty called “smart spending.” The funds left over will be used to fill requests compiled on a staff wish list.

Fundraising is still an important part of the facility’s completion, and currently about $1.8 million has been collected of the $2.4 million goal from area clubs, organizations, foundations, chambers of commerce and more. Spectrum employees also contributed about $100,000 to the project through a Family Campaign implemented within the Spectrum system.

For more information on how to donate to the new center, contact Christie Carlson, development director of the Spectrum Foundation at Reed City Hospital, at (231) 832-7184.