Winkler County, Texas.
These places seem to have little, if anything, in common.
But they’re among the local, national and international locations that MD Anderson patients call home.
Last year, patients traveled from more than 100 countries, 228 Texas counties, 49 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands for the very best in cancer care. Whether it’s Muleshoe, Memphis, North or South Korea, the institution’s patients seek out the expertise of America’s No. 1-ranked cancer center.
Just ask Eileen Sullivan, who’s been coming to MD Anderson for four years. Originally diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in her hometown, the 91-year-old Huntsville, Alabama, native was referred to MD Anderson in 2011 when her cancer progressed.
Houston and the often overwhelming city-within-a-city that is the Texas Medical Center were an immediate challenge for Sullivan and her caretaker, Amy Shadoin, who is also her daughter.
“We contacted Patient Travel Services and they made everything seamless,” says Shadoin. “It was such a blessing because there are so many moving parts atMD Anderson.”
Shadoin marvels at how her patient travel representative, William Perla, immediately recognizes her voice over the phone.
“He doesn’t even have to ask who it is,” she says. “He knows my voice. I’ve also heard his co-workers ask how people’s grandbabies are doing. They’re that familiar with their patients.”
That level of familiarity was a comfort to Sullivan during the past three years when she was enrolled in a clinical trial. With that completed, she now returns every three months for regular follow-ups.
Helping to navigate
Patient Travel Services is just one of the offices available to help patients during a stressful transition. Gwen Hurst, a program manager in Finance, Accounts Payable and Travel, understands how scary things can be for patients when their chief concern is their health, not how they’ll get to Houston or where they’ll stay.
“We have two full-time travel agents who help patients find lodging, offer recommendations for things to do, work with airlines to waive fare-change fees for patients whose schedules are unpredictable, and provide other services,” Hurst says. “We help patients better understand the scope of just how big MD Anderson is. And, in general, we’re just there for them throughout their visits.”
Other offices, such as the International Center and Social Work, also provide assistance to patients traveling to Houston for care.
Coming to MD Anderson can be daunting for patients traveling from other states or small Texas towns. For international visitors, it is can be downright mind-boggling. Not only are they adjusting to a new geographical location, they are immediately immersed in an unfamiliar culture.
Enter the International Center, which offers a menu of services, including helping patients obtain their first appointment, pre-arrival preparation, visa and other arrangements, airport and transportation needs, referrals to banking and business services, lodging, financial inquiries, religious and dining queries, and more.
Martha Coleman, who has been a nurse manager at the International Center for nearly a decade, knows exactly what drives patients to travel thousands of miles to MD Anderson.
“It’s simple. They want to go to the best,” she says. “They hear about us through word-of-mouth from other family members and friends and from our global reputation.”
Coleman describes how one Lebanese patient even wrote a book about her positive experiences when being treated for breast cancer here.
“She was instrumental in getting the word out and helping other women talk about breast cancer, something not so common in the Middle East,” says Coleman.
Last year, MD Anderson welcomed more than 1,200 international patients from across the world. The “top 10” are United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, People’s Republic of China, Qatar, Mexico, Kuwait, Ecuador, Canada, Peru and Venezuela.
“We’re seeing a surge in patients coming from India, however,” says Coleman. “And recently we’ve had inquiries from Cuba.”
Xiaobing Ding, an electrical engineer from Guangzhou, China, has experienced firsthand the International Center’s services. Diagnosed in China with lung cancer, he and his wife, Ping Wang, came to Houston after researching top cancer hospitals.
“I was diagnosed this February with an advanced metastasis in the adrenal gland and was given two cycles of chemotherapy in China,” says Ding. “But when we came to MD Anderson in April, my physician confirmed that the cancer was not metastatic.”
Ding has received treatment at MD Anderson and has been impressed with International Center staff such as Meiling Zhuang, an international patient assistant who also served as Ding’s translator. Neither he nor his wife speaks English.
“The International Center has helped smooth things over with paperwork, physician referrals, airport logistics, assistance with wheelchairs, and, of course, translation. They even recommended a good place to get barbecue.”
A need for networking
Patients often find help through representatives from the MD Anderson Physicians Network®, a multidisciplinary network of providers offering MD Anderson-branded oncology services to local hospitals in the U.S.
Janice Kitchens, a department manager with the Physicians Network, says patients arrive at MD Anderson for many reasons.
“They may want a second opinion or be participating in a clinical trial, or their physician may refer them because they aren’t able to offer the subspecialty care required,” she says. “For example, we get referrals for proton therapy because it’s not widely available.”
Robert McAlister, 76, a rancher who drove to MD Anderson from Hico, Texas, feels he was fortunate to have met the Physicians Network’s Patricia Moore.
“I came to Anderson after I had been feeling sick,” he says. “My doctor ran some tests and after a biopsy, said I had prostate cancer. I sought a second opinion at MD Anderson.”
Shortly after arriving from his 450-acre ranch in Central Texas, McAlister was contacted by Moore, who he says “quarterbacked everything.”
“She was just outstanding and I felt we were kindred spirits,” says McAlister. “I came to look at Patricia as my ‘go-to’ person for trouble spots.”
With Moore’s help, McAlister was quickly referred to MD Anderson’s Brian Chapin, M.D., assistant professor of Urology.
“He just sat down and started talking with me with no laptop, no notebook,” McAlister says. “He said I didn’t need surgery and that the cancer was not aggressive. He recommended a biopsy in six months and put me on a ‘watch’ program.”
Moore, who has been at MD Anderson for 18 years, was glad she could help McAlister.
“We’re often able to help patients cut through a lot of things,” she says. “The processes can be cumbersome and we establish a relationship with patient access specialists in each clinic area so we can help them more efficiently.”
While patients often develop close day-to-day relationships with the MD Anderson staff who help them while they’re here, it’s often a mutual benefit.
“These patients become like our family members,” Moore says. “We watch over them nonstop.”
Going the distance for the best cure