Vietnam War veteran Pat describes his cancer as the “toughest battle he ever fought.” Originally seen at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Pat chose St. Luke’s for care that was “second to none” and closer to home.
Patrick, 69, from Bethlehem Township, is no stranger to facing adversity. From growing up in Staten Island to serving in the Vietnam War then working as a Homeland Security federal officer, he’s met plenty of dangerous situations head on. But cancer was a battle unlike any he’s ever faced. But because he put his faith in William R. Burfeind, Jr., MD and St. Luke’s Cancer Center, he’s back to living his life.
In January, 2016, Pat was getting ready for foot surgery, when a routine, pre-surgery chest x-ray revealed something troubling. After the operation, Pat’s doctor explained he noticed a mass on his lungs and urged him to get it checked out right away. A CAT scan and PET scan confirmed, there was a very prominent tumor growing in Pat’s left upper lung.
Although Pat visited New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering for follow up testing, bloodwork and doctor consultations that would confirm his diagnosis, he realized the traveling back and forth from the city for treatment would be a huge burden. “I couldn’t do that to my wife – it was 90 miles each way,” says Pat.
After asking around and even talking to one of his patients, Pat and his wife met with Dr. Burfeind, St. Luke’s chief of surgery, and chief of thoracic oncology, who reviewed all the testing and bloodwork and discussed the plan of care for his stage 2, slow growing lung cancer. The diagnosis and treatment plan was exactly the same as what Pat had heard at MSK.
“I had access to this facility with an excellent reputation and a highly qualified team of doctors,” explains Pat. “Why would I drive to the Upper West Side of New York for quality treatment? I can get it right here.” And it wasn’t only the doctors who impressed Pat and his wife; the supporting staff had comforting, reassuring things to say about the doctors with whom they worked - everyone they encountered told them that they would not get better care anywhere else.
“I approach caring for my patients as I would care for someone in my own family,” says Dr. Burfeind. “That’s why I understand when patients want to get second or third opinions - I’d want my own family member to be completely informed about all available approaches, so they can make an informed decision about what’s best for them.”
As they discussed plan of care, Pat, who is the epitome of a straight shooter, explained, “I looked Dr. Burfeind in the eyes and told him that I intend to fight this cancer with everything I have, but I need a partner in this.” Over the course of their conversation, Dr. Burfeind mentioned his time in medical school at Duke University. That was all Pat needed to tip the scales. A huge Duke fan, Pat trusted Dr. Burfeind for all of his credentials and qualifications, the best of which was that he was a Duke grad! “I told him, “I’ve been in many life-threatening situations before and now I’m putting my life in your hands - I don’t do that lightly,’” says Pat. “ I also told him that I would haunt him for the rest of his life if he messed this up!” Pat’s joke lightened the conversation, but the situation was very serious. “That day and the days ahead, Pat needed to trust me and St. Luke’s,” says Dr. Burfeind. “I promised him that he would get no better care anywhere else.”
The plan was to remove the tumor in the upper lobe of the lung as well as any traces of the adenocarcinoma or non-small cell lung cancer, followed by an intense course of chemotherapy to remove any additional cells that may have spread.
Pat’s visually assisted (VATS) surgery, left a mere one inch scar on his rib cage. Amazingly, all the nasty cancer in his lungs was removed from that miniscule opening. After he healed, he started chemotherapy. “I knew that the chemo would kill whatever cancer cells were left in my body, but there were some days, that I would have rather been back in Vietnam than go through chemo,” laments Pat. “But as grueling as it was, I knew I wasn’t alone. St. Luke’s doctors and nurses became like compassionate, caring family members - actually, more like angels.”
Pat recalls one of his last rounds of chemo that made him so dehydrated, his kidneys started to fail and he had to be hospitalized. It was around Christmas and he was worried that he may be in the hospital for Christmas Day. “I missed one Christmas because I was fighting a war, but I vowed to never miss another one,” says Pat. The St. Luke’s staff took his vow very seriously, pumped him full of fluids and got him feeling better so he could be with his wife, kids and grandkids on Christmas Day. “I can never thank them enough for that gift,” remembers Pat.
Pat finally rang the bell in St. Luke’s Cancer Center to signify his final chemo treatment. Dr. Burfeind admits that Pat’s case was complex, but because of the cohesive teamwork among the staff, he’s feeling better today. “The St. Luke’s cancer team collaborates and works very closely together on patient cases, allowing for more accurate, efficient diagnoses and treatment plans,” explains Dr. Burfeind.
After Pat’s surgery and chemo, Dr. Burfeind notified him about participating in a new clinical trial; Pat was part of a particularly interesting subgroup because he was Stage 2 lung cancer, which is rare. “If it helps people, I’m in!” was Pat’s attitude. Dr Burfeind and his clinical team feel strongly about their patients participating in clinical trials - 18 percent of all St. Luke’s lung cancer patients are currently participating in clinical trials, three times more than the national average. The trial involves an oral medication and enhanced screening to see if the cancer comes back or spreads over the next two years.
“St. Luke’s was unbelievable,” says Pat. “I would and DO recommend St. Luke’s and Dr. Burfeind, in particular. He’s the best of the best. He reminds me of a fighter pilot - he sets your mind at ease, lets you know exactly where you’re going and how you're going to get there and then he takes you there safely, never letting you down.”