By Christine Cioppa
Following a routine mammogram in the winter of 2013, Trumbull resident Tina Martire was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She quickly sought a second opinion, and then a third. To clear her head and contemplate the overlapping recommendations from three doctors, she took a trip to Aruba. Important decisions as big as this one — cancer care — deserved some time, and what better place to think and reflect than a sandy beach? Shortly after landing back home, she decided on a plan and received treatment at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
When Tina talks about her cancer treatment at St. Vincent’s, what she talks about most is not the incisions to remove cancerous tissue, or the partial mastectomy, or the six weeks of daily radiation. What Tina talks about most is how the hospital helped her heal emotionally and how great her healthcare professional team was. “I have been taken very well care of,” Tina says. “Everybody was on the same page. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a good team; it helps you move through something so delicate and serious.”
St. Vincent’s holistic whole-body approach to medicine was a very big part of her experience – and healing. Tina, 56, mother of three daughters ranging from 21-26, says, “During my chest plate fitting they mentioned Hank Mandel. They said ‘You may want to talk with Hank.’ I was like ‘I’m good. I speak to a social worker. I’m in a good place. I do stress release. I do yoga. I do karate.’” But toward the end of her treatment, she agreed to meet Hank, a social worker who spearheaded the Narrative Knowledge program, which helps patients share their stories.
“I put my own fears on paper, voicing them as a mom, a wife, a grandma, and friend,” says Tina. She explains that telling her story helped her deal with the cancer and with the feelings of others close to her. “It helps you deal with the fears, the treatment, the people that you get very intimate with through treatment,” she explains. “Once you put it out there, it makes it okay for you.”
It’s not surprising that she rates her experience favorably. St. Vincent’s Medical Center is one of the best hospitals in the state – ranked fourth in Connecticut by U.S. News & World Report in its 2013-2014 Best Hospitals report. Of hospitals ranked, this makes St. Vincent’s the leading hospital in Fairfield County. Other hospitals that were ranked high by the Best Hospitals report include Norwalk Hospital, Stamford Hospital, and Danbury Hospital – all in the top 10 for the state. Yale-New Haven Hospital ranks first in the state. Hospitals are also ranked by specialty.
What’s more, St. Vincent’s has achieved an “A” ranking for safety from The Leapfrog Group, an organization that advocates for hospital transparency (hospitalsafetyscore.com). This is important because hospital errors are estimated to be the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Surviving a disease, whatever the prognosis, comes down to more than a person’s biological response to treatment. Survival may also be affected by medical error, such as receiving a wrong medication, or a hospital’s rate of death for surgical complications that are deemed treatable. While safety scores are based on hospitals’ willingness to report – only three hospitals in the state have an “A” ranking. The other two hospitals with an “A” ranking are Griffin Hospital in Derby, and St. Francis Hospital & Medical Center in Hartford.
Recently, St. Vincent’s announced its affiliation with MD Anderson Cancer Network, making it the first hospital in the state to become a member. (U.S. News ranks University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center the best in the country for cancer care.) “This is really a best practices and quality management program,” says Christopher Iannuzzi, MD, chairman of the department of oncology at St. Vincent’s Medical Center. He says the affiliation provides patients with access to some of the best cancer experts in the country.
The hospital also offers cutting-edge technology that is improving patients’ care. Dr. Iannuzzi says Novalis Tx radiosurgery linear accelerator, a machine similar to Stamford Hospital’s CyberKnife, can help reduce the amount of radiation treatments for many cancers. For example, in some cases it can reduce five to eight weeks of daily radiation to one to five treatments. Fewer treatments mean larger doses of radiation that are more precisely targeted. “It’s less invasive and more convenient. There is less chance of damage to surrounding tissue, and it’s more effective,” says Dr. Iannuzzi. Currently, radiosurgery is used for liver cancer, medically inoperable lung cancer, disease in the spine, and tumors in the brain and prostate.
What may also make the hospital best in Fairfield County is its integrative, holistic approach toward patients. “We look at the mind, the body and the spirit as well. That is just as important to us as the treatment,” says Cindy Czaplinski, MSN, RN, vice president, department of oncology. “We are very vigorous with integrative care. We try to look at the whole person and family. We have acupuncturists, massage therapists, certified yoga therapists, nutritionists, and counselors for one-on-one counseling. Any need a cancer patient may have, we try to address it.”
For some patients, like Tina, the approach made all the difference in helping her cope and get through cancer. Tina continues to see one of the doctors from her healthcare team every three months. She also takes advantage of the Survivorship programs at St. Vincent’s. She continues to do breathing exercises, runs several miles per day and uses a trampoline. She says she has made special connections with some staffers and people in her yoga class. “Some of the people that I met will be lifetime friends.”
How to Choose a Hospital
When selecting a hospital, it shouldn’t be just about what hospital your doctor has privileges, or how close your hospital is to your home. Find out how your hospital stacks against others in the state at U.S. News (http://health.usnews.com/best-hospitals). Find out how safe your hospital is at Hospital Safety Score (http://www.hospitalsafetyscore.org). While you’re at it, check out your doctor at the American Medical Association website (https://apps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder).
** Article was intended for summer 2014 publication. Information in this piece is based on 2014 data.