Wheel people
by Geddy Sveikauskas
September 10, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The upper left quadrant of the carefully produced brochure of the Thomas A. Dee Cancer Center at Benedictine Hospital contains a striking image. A single suited foreground figure stiffly holds a large watering can against a bright orange-brown background above parched brown earth. The person pours drops of moisture on the roots of a skimpily-leaved bush. In another version of the picture inside the brochure, a large sun-like circle radiates from above.

The land of plenty this is not. But no one promised you a rose garden. The image may well be a picture appropriate to the land of cancer treatment.

People with cancer need community help more than most people do. Though they also have big issues to deal with, their lives are often focused on quotidian concerns. The bills still have to be paid, the food bought, and the children clothed. In a bleak landscape, a little bit of support from anywhere can be like a ray of sunshine.

"Always being an independent person, asking for help does not come easy for me," explains Al Hackbarth of Hurley, diagnosed with lung cancer last summer and forced to take a leave from a new job that didn't yet pay him benefits. "When the envelope arrived in the mail with gas and grocery cards, I felt I was getting my independence back. I was able to purchase so many items that people often take for granted."

Hackbarth said the gestures brought out his own ability to give and to care. Knowing there were "good people in this world" allowed him to focus on his healing.

"I was simply blown away," Hackbarth summed up. "To receive a gift from people who don't even know me has touched me deeply."

The items came from the Rosemary D. Gruner Memorial Cancer Fund, formed to honor a Kingston woman who died of lung cancer in 2003. The fund will provide up to $500 annually for individual cancer patients in the county.

At the center of therapeutic radiation in Ulster County is Dr. Elizabeth Tapen, director of radiation oncology at Benedictine, whose cancer treatment program is run in partnership with Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie. Tapen treats cancer patients via a Varian Associates linear accelerator which targets and delivers radiation treatments, destroying tumors and avoiding normal tissue. High-energy electromagnetic waves are directed through a variety of therapies to kill cancer cells.

Cancer treatment is not cheap. Are local patients without insurance discriminated against in terms of treatment options? Tapen, a soft-spoken, direct person, thought a moment. "That doesn't happen here," she responded with a hint of flintiness.

For some people invested in the world of health care - and that perhaps should include all of us - the world of health is not a commodity-based universe of buying and selling, of a free market of demand and supply.

The region has an aging population, and the local cancer center is becoming more widely known. The marketplace for its services is expanding. For the patients, being able to stay local helps lessen the emotional and financial burdens of a three- to eight-week course of daily treatment at a hospital.

The Benedictine cancer facility is busy. With a second linear accelerator, it could treat more people and employ a wider range of techniques, Tapen noted.

Barbara Sarah, who works in the oncology support program at Benedictine, has no doubt that literally hundreds of testimonials could be obtained. That very day, a new patient from Plattekill expressed to Sarah her gratitude at the gas cards offered her by the program. "This is going to make all the difference in my ability to get to radiation," Sarah reported the woman as saying.

Case worker Pat Ernenwein, who has worked for the cancer center for three and a half years, interviews each newly enrolled patient for special needs. She has learned from screening all these people that "everyone is different." People with cancer still have the full range of concerns we all have. Issues are not limited to insurance, transportation, employment circumstances, family support, need for childcare, eligibility for Social Security or Medicaid, or degree of personal isolation.

Ernenwein, who works at the program two days a week, credits Dr, Daniel Aronson, chief executive officer at Vassar Brothers, for recognizing and budgeting for her support services, even though these are not billable. "He recognizes how important it is," she says.

The case worker is part of the team. She works with other hospital and hospital foundation personnel, with the American Cancer Society, with the cancer center's oncology support program, and with the Gruner Fund, a unique local resource if ever there was one.

The Gruner Fund, which is sponsoring its major fundraising event, the Bike Ride for Cancer Care, a week from this Sunday (September 20) in Kingston, is special to Ulster County attracting increasing support. "I cannot tell you what a blessing it is," says Ernenwein. When she tries to describe it to her Dutchess friends, confides she, they become "truly jealous."

The conjunction of a great need and a great event seems to have struck a responsive chord with an Ulster County audience. Fund coordinator Dan Gruner expects, weather willing, a record number of participants on September 20. Corporate contributions has increased in the double digits and team sponsorships are up substantially over last year. Early enrollments forecast a record number of riders this year. More than 400 bike riders may participate, and over 125 volunteers will support them.

All proceeds benefit the fund. Patients receiving treatment in Ulster County who have a family annual household income of less than $50,000 or individuals who have an income less than $35,000 are eligible to apply. Once they are qualified, non-cash assistance up to $500 per calendar year is available. All funds are distributed through the oncology support program at Benedictine Hospital (334-3171).

The Gruner Fund, which has always helped out every legitimate request up to $500, saw a huge increase in demand for its services in the first quarter of 2009. Determining that it was an organization with about $75,000 in income and with $100,000 in likely expenses, the fund decided that after April it had to limit its disbursements to $5000 a month for the rest of the year. And what if the bike ride has a bad year?

Not many people realize how unique the Gruner Fund is. Not being a bureaucratic organization, it can think outside the box. One example: A Kingston doctor told a 60-year smoker who had started at the age of seven that he wouldn't operate on him unless the patient quit smoking. The Gruner Fund arranged with a New Paltz hypnotist for a few sessions. Result: After hypnosis, the patient kicked the habit, and the doctor agreed to operate.

The three rides all begin in front of Ulster Savings Bank on Schwenk Drive in Kingston. Registration begins at 7:45 a.m. The five-mile family ride, which begins at 11 a.m., will go to Old Hurley and back. The 25-mile ride, which launches at 10 a.m., will extend to Marbletown, Stone Ridge and Rosendale before returning to Kingston. And the 50-mile ride, scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m., will continue through the Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz prior to return. Registration for the events costs $15.

This unusual organization has hit a wall of its own. To ascend to the next level of community support, it needs itself to be supported more widely. It would be great if everyone could do just a little bit more.

Elizabeth Tapen, the cancer doctor, is doing her little bit more. She'll be at the starting line on her bike on September 20.++

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