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Columbus Regional losing pediatric cancer specialist, searching for alternatives

BY TONY ADAMS

tadams@ledger-enquirer.com

The pending departure of its only pediatric oncologist has Columbus Regional Health working to negotiate a “partnership” with other medical facilities outside of Columbus to treat children suffering from cancer and other illnesses once the doctor leaves within the next month.

The predicament also has generated emotion from some families who use the facility and from some volunteers who have been working with the ill children to make them comfortable during visits in which they receive infusions and chemotherapy.

“We would like to see more options so they can at least keep the clinic open,” parent Jessica Richmond said Monday of the prospect of the facility closing. Her daughter, Maddie, 4, suffers from a brain tumor and has been receiving chemotherapy there.

“Even if we had to go to Atlanta to get chemo, well, keep the clinic open until you find a new pediatric oncologist,” she pleaded to Columbus Regional. “That way my nurse practitioner there can at least check my child’s (blood cell) counts when they’re low.”

The hospital system confirmed that Dr. Paul LoDuca has informed management that he is leaving the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic on Center Street near Midtown Medical Center. He has been here about five years, Jessica Word, public relations coordinator at Columbus Regional, said Friday.

“It would be inaccurate to say that we are effectively closing,” Word said of a recent Facebook post about the clinic’s fate. “It’s just in the meantime we’re currently seeking new partnerships so we can continue that same kind of care.”

In fact, Ryan Chandler, president of Midtown Medical Center, sent an email Friday afternoon — later posted on Facebook — to the hospital’s staff and senior leadership concerning “negative replies” the original Facebook post last Thursday had generated.

“We did not plan to close the clinic or eliminate the service line, but we will be suspending clinic-based pediatric oncology services when Dr. LoDuca leaves,” Chandler said in the note. “MMC (Midtown Medical Center) will continue to be able to provide pediatric oncology infusion services in the MMC infusion center on the 2nd floor of the hospital.”

LoDuca could not be reached for comment at his office Monday morning. Later in the afternoon, via email, the doctor said he would be happy to speak about the situation once approval was given by Columbus Regional Health. Calls and an email to Word were not returned Monday.

Tripp Layfield, Columbus Regional Health’s senior vice president and general counsel, said Monday evening that LoDuca is relocating to another state and leaving the oncology field altogether, instead practicing less-intense general pediatrics.

“From the standpoint of those patients he’s been treating in town, it is a loss,” Layfield said. “In the context of health care in Columbus as a whole, physicians are routinely arriving and leaving in Columbus, Ga., dozens a year. It’s not like this is a unique event. It’s a unique event in the context that he’s the only one we have.”

Chandler, in his note to staff, said the hospital is “working with other academic based pediatric programs to explore partnerships” in hopes of bringing a pediatric oncology provider to Columbus.

“While Dr. LoDuca’s departure is disappointing and indeed a setback, it will not shake our efforts to continue to serve our communities with outstanding pediatric care,” he said.

The hematology and oncology clinic sees an average of 81 patients per month. The pediatric clinic is designed aesthetically for children, Word said, including the furniture used by the patients. The nearby John B. Amos Cancer Center primarily treats adults.

Layfield said the challenge for LoDuca was being the only true pediatric oncologist in the city. That put pressure on the doctor when he perhaps needed down time and vacations. The patient load also was in somewhat of a gray area, he said.

“Those 81 patients (a month) are 81 very important people that need to be seen and treated,” Layfield said. “But it’s kind of in that awkward number of patients in that certainly you have enough to keep Dr. LoDuca busy — as with any physician he would always like to be busier; as his employer we would like him to be busier — but at the same time it’s not enough patients to support bringing two pediatric oncologists to town.”

In terms of searching for a new pediatric oncologist, Layfield said it would be “extremely challenging” to find a replacement for LoDuca within the next six months. Most physicians in “hard to find” specialties and sub-specialties tend to have their choice of jobs and locations, which often are larger cities, he said.

That’s why Columbus Regional is reaching out to other health-care entities to see if an arrangement can be made to treat local patients. It could mean pediatric patients having to travel for some care, Layfield said, but it also could lead to chemotherapy and other services performed locally.

“That’s what we’re attempting to do is figure out a way to provide the service, both in the short term and the long term,” he said.

Should pediatric patients be required to travel outside of Columbus, one of the most notable in the region is the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, operated by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Layfield confirmed Columbus Regional Health has approached that organization.

Richmond said she and husband Bryan also have been taking daughter Maddie from their home in Smiths Station, Ala., to a neuro-oncologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. Receiving chemotherapy in Columbus saves both time and money, she said, recalling another family going through their own medical ordeal.

“One little girl actually relapsed in October, and they just started going back to Atlanta,” Richmond said. “(The mother) was talking about the strain it puts on her family because of how much it costs in travel expenses, and she needs a new car. It’s rough on them. She said they’ve had to go up there three times in one week just for different things.”

Richmond said the prospect of kids using the second-floor infusion center is not a good solution, temporary or not, for the families. She believes the pediatric facility serves a needed purpose.

“I’m very close to the staff,” she said. “My daughter loves them. She walks in there and it’s like playtime for her. She’s never cried or fussed. At the time she was 2 — that’s when we started — she would walk in, they would play with her and make it enjoyable and make it fun. At Egleston, they’re great, they’re wonderful, but they have so many patients.”

Lindsey Dunton Johnson, a volleyball coach at Northside High School, said she and her team have been volunteering at the pediatric clinic going on two years. She lamented the possibility of the children receiving treatment in the adult facility or families having to travel to Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and other major cities for care.

“They won’t be given activities to do during treatment or be given someone just to talk to who truly loves them,” she said in support of the local clinic staff. “The nurses at the clinic care for each one of them. They aren’t just a number.”

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