The following story is from an interview with Donald Haldeman, a patient at PSCC.
It wasn't his heart this time ‐ it was colon cancer. And PSCC delivered all of Don's treatment and coordinated his specialists close to home in their North Seattle center.
"I still remember what Dr. Dong said to me. 'My job is to keep you alive.' I told him to do whatever he had to do, because I'll still be here after it's all done."
The last time Don didn't feel well, it was because he had a bad heart valve and needed surgery. The next time he felt that total lack of energy, he was managing a health crisis with his mother. It could've been the stress, he thought. But even so, he decided to go back to his cardiologist at Northwest Hospital and have it checked out. After a battery of tests, he was referred back to a family doctor, also in the North Seattle neighborhood, where they determined the diagnosis ‐ it wasn't his heart. Don was anemic.
During this time, his cardiologist and family doctor were in constant communication as the tests continued. Don reflected on the fact that he'd had his heart valve surgery done at one of the prestigious hospitals in downtown Seattle. He knew he'd had one of the best surgeons, but whatever it was this time, Don knew he didn't want to be tethered to a downtown health system again. "I remember how much we had to drive from our home to downtown, back and forth. Add to that the parking headaches and the amount of time it all takes, and I just knew I didn't want to do that again."
Then he learned that the doctors associated with Northwest Hospital were of the same high caliber he'd experienced downtown. He made the decision to keep all of his doctors from the same area at Northwest Hospital, whatever may come of this latest health concern.
As it turned out, he made the right decision. His family doctor explained that it wasn't his heart. "'We have a problem,' he told me. 'You have a massive tumor in your colon, and it's bad,'" Don said. "'We have to get you to Puget Sound Cancer Centers (PSCC) across the street.'" He was referred urgently and seen by Dr. David Dong. By this time, Don knew he didn't want to become an experiment at a teaching hospital. He just wanted a top-notch oncologist that worked well with his other doctors. As it turned out, that's exactly what he got. "These three doctors were already talking with each other, planning the next steps. PSCC and Dr. Dong made room for me and got me in really fast. I was amazed," Don added.
As fast as this was all happening, Don immediately felt comfortable with Dr. Dong. "I had faith in him. Right away he laid out the battle plan, and it had its complexities because I took Coumadin, a blood thinner for my heart valve," Don added. "Blood thinners complicate surgery because a patient can easily bleed too much unless it's carefully balanced with another drug. And even that has to be tuned precisely in order to work when it should."
It turned out that from all of Don's initial studies to make sure his tumor had not spread, it was learned that he actually had two adjacent tumors in his right colon.
Dr. Dong determined initially, however, that the tumors were too large for upfront surgery and that they would need a way to shrink the tumors first, otherwise it would leave a lot of residual tumor behind. Dr. Dong planned chemotherapy along with radiation, defined as neoadjuvant treatment, before surgery. According to Don, "While this was going on, all of my doctors were working together ‐ my medical oncologist, Dr. Dong, my radiation oncologist, my surgeon, my cardiologist and my family doctor. They shared information and consulted with each other so they'd be in agreement on the next steps."
Don thought about all the activity, all the appointments and all the trips to PSCC. "I would never have made it if all of this was downtown. I spent a lot of time at PSCC and Northwest Hospital. Thankfully, it's a short drive from my house. You think about things like that, believe it or not."
Complications did arise. Even with all the safeguards in place, Don started bleeding internally from all the radiation and was in the intensive care unit at the hospital before he knew it. After nine units of blood, they found the source of the bleeding and stopped it. But Don knew it was the team effort that pulled him through. "I still remember what Dr. Dong said to me. 'My job is to keep you alive,'" Don said. "I told him to do whatever he had to do, because I'll still be here after it's all done." It's turns out that Don was a US Marine in the service. And that meant to him that you never give up, no matter what.
Once Don was stabilized and the tumors responded well to treatment, he was scheduled for surgery. To complicate things further, however, it was also learned that Don's gallbladder needed to come out. His surgeons assured him that they'd do everything they could to take out the tumors and the gallbladder, but because of the number and size of his tumors, he may be left with a stoma. The prospect of living with a stoma was not what Don had in mind, but if they got it all out, he'd have to live with it, as he does today.
Don looks back on everything and realizes that much of his success came from the overwhelming support from Dr. Dong and his staff. "With all the appointments, tests, treatments and consultants, they are the ones that coordinated all of that for me and my wife. They were so nice on top of everything. They're real professionals."
With the support of his wife, Don, age of 77, still lives a very active life that includes hunting, fishing and maintaining more than one home. He sees no point in slowing down, which causes Dr. Dong to "get a real kick out of me." He is still going strong, cancer-free now six years from completion of his treatment.
"I tell everyone, if you get sick like I did, you don't need to go downtown. They're real pros right here at PSCC. Until you're sick, you don't realize how important time is, and a shorter drive is real important. I know I had the best docs around and they're like a seamless machine. It's an absolute miracle I'm still here to talk about it, too."