UPMC unveils new, high-tech cancer center

Dr. Mohammad Alkayem chats with his patient, Frank Stahl of Altoona in one of the new treatment areas. Photo for the Mirror by J.D. Cavrich

Cancer patient Frank Stahl has just one complaint about UPMC Altoona’s new cancer clinic on the first floor of the hospital’s Outpatient Surgery Center.

The TVs in the rooms where patients receive chemotherapy only get 10 channels, he said.

Stahl likes the History Channel and PBS — not game shows, he said, at the grand opening Tuesday of the $6.8 million UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Altoona — an outreach of the Hillman Center in Pittsburgh and a replacement for the freestanding Blair Medical Associates Hematology /Oncology practice at Station Medical Center.

Still, UPMC Hillman in Altoona — except for the Pittsburgh site, now the largest of 63 cancer treatment centers in the UPMC system — has offsetting benefits, according to Stahl, including room for fiancee, Pam Dukeman, to sit next to him for moral support while he waits for his twice-weekly chemo shot.

The new center contains 28 treatment bays, nearly twice the number at Station Medical; two private treatment rooms, an on-site licensed pharmacy that conforms to the highest patient and practitioner safety standards and a laboratory.

It’s nice to be able to chat with his fiancee during the half hour he must wait in a treatment bay for his chemo compound to be prepared, Stahl said.

Having the room for such companionship is probably even more important for the more typical cancer patients who receive chemo infusions that average three hours, as stated by Marianne Beyer, senior practice manager.

Stahl, 75, was chipper and fit-looking. Other than restlessness and nausea from his first shot, there have been no problems, Stahl said.

He’s “thriving,” said one center official.

He has multiple myeloma, according Dr. Mohammad Alkayem, his medical oncologist.

“Blood-bone cancer,” Stahl called it.

In addition to his shots, which are designed to stop the proliferation of cancer cells, he takes a pill every week, except for a respite on the 14th week, to modulate his immune system, Alkayem said. He also receives a drip to fortify his bones, Stahl said.

It’s the latest regimen for people with multiple myeloma, according to Alkayem.

The hope is for Stahl to achieve a good enough response to qualify for a bone marrow transplant, the doctor said.

The additional treatment bays help prevent delays of perhaps two or three weeks for patients to begin chemo, according to Alkayem.

“That’s very, very important,” he said.

The inclusion of a lab at the new facility eliminates the need for patients to go to the hospital for blood count checks that provide doctors the answers “to many things,” Alkayem said.

The private treatment rooms — one with a bed, rather than a chair — are for those who are too highly immuno-compromised for the regular four-seat bays, for those who are too ill to sit for long, for VIPs who demand privacy and for inmates, officials said.

The pharmacy is now the most advanced in the entire UPMC system, according to oncological pharmacist Brian Kudlawiec.

The pharmacy complex includes sterile rooms with exhaust fan hoods and air pressure that is regulated by electronic controls connected to separate ventilation units on the roof for each room, along with pressure monitors.

The setup helps ensure the safety of employees against poisoning by the hazardous chemo drugs and helps ensure the safety of immuno-compromised patients against microbial contamination.

For efficiency’s sake, technicians work all day in the sterile rooms under direction of the pharmacists, who track the technicians’ compounding of individualized concoctions for patients through live video feeds.

The pharmacists can’t do the compounding directly, because they need to be out and about in the non-sterile areas throughout the day, Kudlawiec said.

At Station Medical, the compounding was done in a “glove box,” Kudlawiec said.

The new Hillman facility in Altoona, which is technologically on par with the primary Hillman site in Pittsburgh, reflects UPMC’s commitment to provide care not just in the big city, but “where people live,” said Dr. Peter Ellis, Hillman’s deputy director.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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