TRUCKEE, Calif. — Time is of the essence when it comes to surviving traumatic injuries. Medivacs, ambulances, lights, sirens and fast-responding health care professionals can be the difference between a recovery or a funeral.
But even when the ailment is of a more insidious nature, benefits come with having help nearby.
With the imminent opening of the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center — the 34,000-square-foot, $32.6 million, Measure C-funded facility on Pine Avenue — area residents fighting cancer will no longer need to travel far to receive top-of-the-line treatment.
The center will treat all types of cancer — save for pediatric cases — and administrators expect to see almost 2,000 patients per year within the next six years.
The Gene Upshaw facility, named for the humanitarian and former NFL athlete who was a member of the Tahoe Truckee community for 35 years until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2008, replaces the Tahoe Forest Cancer Center.
The Tahoe Forest Cancer Center had been treating and diagnosing the illness since 2006 from its nearby location on Donner Pass Road, but its abilities were hampered by a lack of radiation equipment, officials have said. For treatments such as those, patients had to travel to Reno, Sacramento or elsewhere, upward of four times a week.
Tahoe Forest's cancer program is led by Dr. Larry J. Heifetz, medical director; and Dr. Ahrin Koppel, medical oncologist and hematologist.
In addition to equipping the new center with forefront radiation oncology technology such as a PET CT (positron emission tomography - computed tomography) machine and a Varian TrueBeam Linear accelerator — the latter machine designed to target tumors with precision — the Gene Upshaw center has invested in a state-of-the-art video conferencing room.
The conference room allows doctors to collaborate with other specialists within the UC Davis Cancer Care Center network, an organization that combines the expertise of five hospital-based cancer centers.
The “virtual tumor board,” as administrators call it, meets several times a week.
“It looks a lot like Hollywood Squares, with each conference table taking a square,” said Paige Nebeker Thomason, marketing and communications director with Tahoe Forest.
She described how doctors in one conference room can interact “face-to-face” with doctors at several other hospitals, all the while viewing a display of a patient's medical file. This feature allows patients and doctors to get a second, third and even fourth opinion without the burden of extensive travel.
If treatment is not working, patients at the Gene Upshaw facility will have the opportunity to participate in clinical trials offered by the UC Davis network.
In the conference room at the new center, one of Keoki Flagg's Squaw Valley rescue dogs photos hangs on the back wall. The photograph is not just decoration; it is visible in the background during the “tumor board” meetings, so other hospitals can easily distinguish which hospital is speaking.
Design and art are not overlooked as tools at the new cancer center. Throughout the building, the colors are muted and soft; the lighting is mellow and natural, and in every detail the center is designed with the patient's experience and sense of well-being in mind, Thomason said.
Those receiving chemotherapy infusions will do so from the comfort of an overstuffed massage chair. Patients can choose to sit inside, chatting with other patients and nurses, or have their chairs rolled outside onto the patio to enjoy the Sierra sunshine and fresh mountain air. A large, glass-encased fireplace is in the center of the room, providing ambiance.
“It's a healing atmosphere,” said Thomason.
A healing atmosphere was the look and feel volunteers with the Cancer Advisory Council were going for, Thomason said, when they advised the building's designers.
The council was formed in 2006 and is directed by local resident Pam Hobday. It is a group of 19 local business leaders whose mission is to “shape the future” of health care in the region. The group has been responsible for organizing the annual cancer fundraiser, Best of Tahoe Chefs, as well as performing outreach activities for the cancer center.
After the council researched 12 regional hospitals, volunteers brought what they learned back to Truckee and, in essence, created a cancer center based on the creme de la creme of care facilities.
— Bonanza Managing Editor Kevin MacMillan contributed to this story.