Hans Rueffert, one of the 700 Georgians treated at MD Anderson Cancer Network in Texas each year, is going to have one less thing to worry about now that Piedmont has announced its partnership with what many consider to be the best cancer treatment facility in the nation.
“I joke that cancer is the most expensive hobby I’ve had,” said Rueffert, who was diagnosed with gastric cancer in 2005. “I’ll probably have medical bills the rest of my life, but when you couple that with travel back and forth to Texas for me and my family, plus my wife and my kids eating out it’s even more expensive.”
Rueffert, owner of Woodbridge Inn in Jasper, said after his diagnosis it quickly became apparent that treatment for his rare type of cancer would be a challenge – one that would require oncologists who specialized in that area.
“We knew very little about [gastric cancer] at the time,” Rueffert said. “When my wife and I began looking around on the Internet there was not much information - everything we found linked to obituaries. We knew we were dealing with something rare.”
Rueffert said he was introduced to MD Anderson – which has frequently ranked number one in cancer care in the “Best Hospitals” survey published by U.S. News & World Report – through his wife’s family member who served on their board of advisors.
“We knew that it was the best in the country and maybe in the world,” Rueffert said. “We talked to our oncologist at Piedmont about it and he kind of looked around and over his shoulder and told us, ‘A hundred percent. Go now.’ He said I needed someone who has dealt with this type of cancer thousands of times, not just a few times like they had at Piedmont. ”
Rueffert - who has been very active in cancer advocacy and education since his diagnosis – said his Piedmont oncologist even agreed to a kind of blended treatment schedule that, while it would still require him to make the trips west, would allow him to undergo some treatment in Atlanta.
“I was very fortunate,” Rueffert said. “Dr. York told me I could have my surgeries done at MD Anderson, but that he would agree to follow their protocol when it came to follow-up care and blood work. I was able to have the best of both worlds. ”
Rueffert said in the nine years since his diagnosis he has had 12 surgeries at MD Anderson and is required to have multiple check-ups each year, which he alternates between the Texas facility and Piedmont Atlanta.
Rueffert said prior to the partnership - announced last Friday, July 11 - technology at Piedmont Atlanta paled when compared to the Texas treatment center. To illustrate, Rueffert pointed to infections that popped up in his brain around 2010.
“They found bubbles in my brain,” he said. “Here at Piedmont they found five, but when we went to MD Anderson they found 10. It was like looking at a Polaroid versus looking at a high-quality 3D image. Cancer patients are all looking for No Evidence of Disease, and if I would get a NED at Piedmont I didn’t have that peace of mind until I got one from MD Anderson.”
But in a move Rueffert likens to “teaming up with the smart kid in science class,” Piedmont Atlanta has enhanced technology in their oncology division to match that of MD Anderson - and doctors there will now have full access to resources at the world-class treatment facility.
“Our affiliation with MD Anderson Cancer Network ensures our patients receive cancer care based on best practices developed by one of America’s leading cancer care providers,” said Kevin Brown, chief executive officer of Piedmont Healthcare. “While excellent care has always been provided at Piedmont, this collaboration takes our quality assurances to a new level.”
Piedmont oncologists like Perry Ballard, M.D. say the collaboration gives Piedmont physicians certified by MD Anderson access to “evidence-based, disease-specific guidelines for cancer treatment, prevention, early detection and follow-up care developed by a national leader in cancer care.”
Rueffert says trips back and forth to Houston will no longer be part of his life - but that even though it’s a relief to have the burden of travel and expense off his plate the change is bittersweet.
“Over the last nine years of treatment I’ve made so many friends in Houston,” he said. “Now I don’t really have an excuse to go back.”
Piedmont is the only health system in Georgia to become an affiliate of MD Anderson Cancer Network, a program of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
MD Anderson’s best practices and protocols will be implemented at Piedmont Atlanta and Piedmont Fayette hospitals. In the future, Piedmont Henry and Piedmont Newnan hospitals are expected to become MD Anderson Cancer Network certified members as well.