A little over a year since it was announced, MSK Physicians at Norwalk Hospital, the cancer care collaboration between Norwalk Hospital and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is making a difference in how Fairfield County-based patients suffering from the disease are being treated.
“Putting this together was a two-year labor of love,” said Linda Versea, executive director oncology service line, Western Connecticut Health Network, to which Norwalk Hospital belongs. “What we were seeking was to offer patients somewhere they could go that’s closer than Memorial Sloan Kettering (in New York City or West Harrison) or Dana-Farber (Cancer Institute in Boston). That travel time can make a difference, especially with someone who’s got an advanced case of cancer.”
MSK Physicians at Norwalk Hospital marks the first time that Sloan Kettering doctors have offered cancer services within another hospital’s cancer program outside of New York state. “We’ve long believed that our staff here (at the C. Anthony and Jean Whittingham Cancer Center) are doing a great job,” Versea noted. “But WCHN is always looking for ways to improve patient care, as well as ways to challenge ourselves to do better.”
As part of the collaboration, three MSK experts — Drs. Linda Vahdat, Daniel Shasha and Hsiang-Chi Kuo — have joined the Norwalk Hospital staff and are leading its medical oncology, radiation therapy and medical physics cancer departments. All six of Norwalk Hospital’s medical and radiation oncologists have joined MSK’s medical staff.
The collaboration has resulted in what Versea termed “an uptick” in new patient consultations, although she said specific data were not available. About 700 patients are newly diagnosed with cancer each year at Norwalk, she said.
One patient who has benefited from the MSK Physicians at Norwalk Hospital program is Greg Stillwagon, a Stratford resident who in June 2016 was diagnosed with high-grade stage III metastatic kidney cancer. The cancer, which had originated in Stillwagon’s left kidney, had already metastasized to the lymph nodes in his abdomen.
“I’ve known my primary care physician (Dr. Seyed H. Aleali, based in Bridgeport) for 35 years, and he recommended that I go to Sloan (in New York City),” Stillwagon recalled. “I trusted the guy, and I’m glad I did.”
In September 2016, Stillwagon had his left kidney removed along with several lymph nodes from his abdomen. His surgeon also removed part of his spleen and part of his pancreas. He spent the entire following month as an inpatient at MSK in New York City, about two hours from Stratford.
While his kidney cancer went into remission, it came back even more aggressively a short time later, and in January 2017 he was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer — a condition whose five-year survival rate is 8 percent.
Understandably weakened both by his treatment and the travel, this time Stillwagon — the former CFO at BTX Global Logistics in Shelton who continues to run his own Gregory D. Stillwagon Consulting — and his physicians decided that going to MSK Westchester in West Harrison made more sense, with the commute essentially cut in half — to about two hours round trip. There he began taking an oral chemotherapy.
While still displaying his trademark indefatigable spirit — “Somebody told me once that if you ever find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics stink,” he declared — Stillwagon was still spending a lot of time on the road for his triweekly treatments.
“Then I started seeing TV ads and billboards about Sloan Kettering affiliating itself with Norwalk and the cancer center there,” he recalled, noting that the hospital is about 20 minutes from his home.
“To be frank, it was an enormous pain in the ass” to go to Manhattan, he said, “and it was the same problem with West Harrison — the traffic on I-95 is just monstrous.”
Transferring to Norwalk in November 2017, Stillwagon began to see Dr. Richard Frank, a medical oncologist at the hospital and a consultant in the gastrointestinal oncology service at MSK. Stillwagon said that Frank soon decided that the oral chemotherapy was no longer working and switched him to intravenous immunotherapy, a relatively new type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer. Originally going to Norwalk for injections every two weeks, Stillwagon said the treatment has been successful enough that he now goes once a month.
“Dr. Aleali said that Sloan is always working on something, and that if this doesn’t work today they’ll come up with two or three other things to try,” Stillwagon said.
Effusive with his praise for the Norwalk staff, Stillwagon said that he appreciates their direct approach. “I’ve worked as an accountant and a CFO for 40 years,” he said, “so I appreciate when somebody can sit there and not just tell me about a problem but provide a solution and a path to that solution. And that’s what Dr. Frank and the others at Norwalk have done.”
“Mr. Stillwagon is fighting a tough cancer, but despite that, he is doing remarkably well,” Frank said. “This is in part due to the advanced treatment options we can offer patients like Mr. Stillwagon at Norwalk Hospital. He is also doing well because of his attitude. Mr. Stillwagon is the toughest guy I know — he’s indestructible.”
“You have to have a really good attitude with something like this,” Stillwagon said. “But the people at Sloan and Norwalk Hospital have given me the confidence I need, by explaining the whys and hows of what they’re doing and,” he chuckled, “putting up with all of my stupid stories and jokes.
“They’ve helped me be as strong as I possibly can be,” he said.