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Hembree Mercy Cancer Center unveils $5.1 million renovation, expansion

story and photos by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Mercy Fort Smith's Hembree Mercy Cancer Center showed off improvements at its long-time facility Tuesday (Aug. 13), including some of the most expensive equipment ever purchased by the medical center that it said would benefit patients who previously were commuting to Northwest Arkansas or Tulsa for certain treatments.

The $5.1 million expansion and renovation of the radiation oncology department inside the cancer center included the purchase of a Varian TrueBeam STx linear accelerator at a cost of nearly $3 million, according to Mercy President Ryan Gehrig. The clinic also added a Varian GammaMed Plus high dose rate brachytherapy unit for treatment of certain types of breast and gynecologic cancers.

The funding, provided by Gerdau, the Hennessy Foundation and First National Bank of Fort Smith, also supported a renovation of the cancer center's lobby and the addition of a patient resource library. The lobby renovation was its first since opening in 1994.

Summer Bonner, the center's lead radiation therapist, explained that the new TrueBeam machine will allow medical staffers at Mercy to better pinpoint treatments and avoid unnecessary damage to nerves, blood vessels or other parts of the body. The pinpointing is allowed because of the device's built-in CT scanner.

"In the past, skid marks and marks on the mask are what we also used to treat patients. Unfortunately when you do that, if you don't have imaging equipment, you have to go with a larger margin because you don't want to miss anything that could be cancerous. It was really important that you include everything. Now we've got this technology, we've been able to shrink our margins and use different types of treatments."

Gehrig explained that the new devices could offer treatments in Fort Smith that previously required travel to other regions like Northwest Arkansas or Tulsa. Bonner explained one of the treatments now available with the TrueBeam device.

"(One of the new treatments available is) intensity-modulated radiation therapy," she said. "That means we can give that tumor a much higher dose and we can spare normal tissue. So now we've got all these imaging techniques and imaging quality, we can use those techniques to treat our patients better and hopefully relieve some of the side affects that they had experienced from the radiation therapy."

Bonner said the new TrueBeam is so accurate, it can treat a tumor with "submillimetric accuracies."

"In the past, we didn't have that capability," she added.

Jayme Gaucher, a radiation therapist at Hembree Mercy Center Center, explained that the addition of the GammaMed Plus device that administers high doses of brachytherapy allows the patients to receive radiation treatments internally through a catheter versus the external radiation administered by the TrueBeam device.

"So we attach it to a catheter, which is attached to a cylinder or something that is inserted in the patient, and it delivers it directly to the tumor or the area where the tumor was," she said.

Gaucher said the device is mainly used for gynecologic cancers and breast cancers and can be combined with external treatments.

"If they get the two together, then they'll get about 30 or so treatments with the external beam radiation and then afterwards, they'll come for maybe three treatments with the HDR (high dose rate). If it's used as their primary treatment, then they only have to have maybe about five. Somewhere in that range. So it's a real short course if it's just this."

The device is the only one of its kind in Fort Smith, Gaucher said, reducing travel time and expense for patients needing the specific type of treatment provided by the HDR machine.

The final addition to the updated cancer center is the patient resource library to the right of the center's entrance, which features materials on treatments, medical information and a computer with Internet access. In the library is an work of art by Little Rock artist Guy Bell entitled "First Light."

According to Traci Webb, director of oncology services, the inclusion of the art is intended to be inspirational for patients experiencing exceptionally difficult challenges as they fight cancer.

"There are analogies that compare a cancer patient's journey to the path of the sun," she said. "Before diagnosis, the patient typically starts their cancer battle doing okay, the sun's still out and things seem somewhat optimistic. As the sun goes down and night falls, much like the time of diagnosis and throughout care, things become darker and more difficult. The sunrise in the morning symbolizes the ending of the cancer patient's treatment. As they sun rises, there is renewed hope and motivation to continue on. We worked very hard to symbolize sunrise instead of sunset by focusing on cool tones of color."

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As part of the expansion of the cancer center, Gehrig said the hospital has hired an additional oncologist and would hire more as patient demand required.

He said an exciting feature that would benefit Fort Smith residents is the possibility of specialists being able to treat patients remotely through the new Mercy virtual care center under construction in Chesterfield, Mo.

"You know there could be some specialist services that maybe Fort Smith can't support by itself, but you pool into a larger group that (makes it economically viable). … At this point, I don't know of any specific examples. But it could (come). And all of that is being explored and developed as we speak."

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