A new tree rises to shelter hope - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

A new tree rises to shelter hope

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 10:26 am

This is a column about cancer and hope.

It didn’t start out that way.

It started out as a column about cancer and economic development.

Early this year in his state of the town address, Gilbert Mayor John Lewis pointed to the planned Sept. 26 opening of the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center as one of the “great opportunities” that he hoped would spur high quality job growth.

After all, Lewis said, in its 70 years in Houston the MD Anderson complex had grown to occupy 11 million square feet and generate 16,000 jobs.

I expressed an interest in writing about MD Anderson’s Arizona venture and what it might mean to the East Valley.

Lewis suggested I interview the center’s new medical director, Dr. Edgardo Rivera.

On May 19 I drove to the Canyon Springs Medical Plaza just west of Banner Gateway Hospital off Higley Road and south of the Superstition Freeway. I rode the elevator to the fourth floor with Susan Gordon, the hospital’s public relations director.

I knew I was going to meet an accomplished oncologist. The announcement last November of Rivera’s appointment had left no doubt.

He was the medical director at Methodist Hospital’s Breast Center in Houston and was an associate professor of medicine in the Department of Breast Medical Oncology at Methodist Hospital. He had received his post-graduate training at MD Anderson and received the 2003 MD Anderson Outstanding Educator Award.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

What I didn’t know is, well, what kind of man he is.

A handshake and warm smile immediately obliterated any “House M.D.” stereotypes that had bounced around in my head.

His office was generic, except for one thing: Its picture window faced north and gave him a commanding view of the 133,000-square-foot cancer treatment center.

The view of the first of a potential three building complex is one that I’m sure he takes in often as he reflects on his responsibilities. And so the view was where our conversation began.

He mentioned to Gordon that he could see the healing garden taking shape below.

He told me that the chemotherapy chairs would be situated so that, while undergoing treatment, patients would have a serene view of blue sky and mountains. To be precise, Red Mountain dominates the view.

He pointed to the louvers over the south-facing windows to protect patients from direct Arizona sun.

Even the walk from waiting rooms to treatment facilities has been designed to minimize the distance tired patients would have to travel.

All of it is designed to promote “a healing environment,” Rivera said. “The center was built taking the patient into consideration — the view, the colors, the healing garden.”

“Every detail is important — even the way you are greeted,” Rivera continued.

The comment resonated. The friendly and open manner in which I was being treated is how the 47-year-old medical director wants patients at the center to be treated.

I asked about MD Anderson and what has given it its reputation as among the best cancer treatment facilities in the world. (At the time, I hadn’t known that U.S. News and World Report had ranked the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center at the very top among 900 cancer hospitals included in its survey.)

State of the art equipment, personalized medicine and individualized therapy, he answered.

The Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert will have doctors of the same caliber as those at its Houston center and state of the art equipment, Rivera said. He specifically mentioned the installation of the latest model linear accelerator used for radiation therapy.

And what did he want to be his legacy in being the medical director of MD Anderson’s first venture into the Southwest?

He paused, laughed and admitted he had not been asked that question before.  Then he said:

“We would have a place that would be considered top notch — a place that I would be proud to send a family member to.”

The message-minders might have hoped he had said something more practiced.  But, as with so many of us, cancer has shaped his family experience, making his response one that was from the heart.

When the Puerto Rican-born Rivera was in his second year of medical school, his brother was diagnosed with cancer. Four years later his brother died.

The family tragedy defined his life’s work. “I said this is what I want to do.”

Later that morning as Susan Gordon walked me through the unfinished outpatient center, Banner Gateway’s public relations director said quietly, “My first husband had cancer. He was not a survivor.”

My shoulders sagged and I knew that for people like Rivera and Gordon, the center has nothing to do with economic development and everything to do with hope.

We ended the tour at the Lantern of Hope.

The Lantern of Hope is a 68-foot translucent structure at the center’s northeast corner. The lights will be turned on June 7 and will silhouette the shape of a paloverde tree.

The tree, Gordon tells me, is known in the desert as “the nurse, because it protects plants and animals that live beneath it.”

• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

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