The spring of 2012 should have been among the most joyous times in Mike Packnett’s life.
The president and CEO was overseeing the grand opening of Parkview Regional Medical Center, a half-billion-dollar hospital that will be the nonprofit’s crown jewel for years to come.
But all the congratulations quickly faded into background noise after his wife, Donna, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple, now married 37 years, was plunged into a medical maze that had them wondering whether they were asking the right people the right questions.
"Even as the CEO, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around this and what the next steps were," Packnett said Wednesday during a one-on-one interview, about 30 minutes after announcing Parkview Health’s plans for an $80 million cancer center.
The state-of-the-art center will be built on the Parkview Regional Medical Center campus. The two buildings will be connected.
Packnett is daring to dream big with the project designed to minimize cancer patients’ confusion.
"We have an audacious goal to be the best regional cancer institute, to set the standard for cancer care," he said. "This is a personal thing for us."
Patients now travel two to four hours outside Fort Wayne – to Indianapolis or Chicago – to receive the level of care that will be offered in the new center, officials said.
Groundbreaking for the Parkview Cancer Institute is scheduled for November after a summer spent visiting similar centers and finalizing the design. Completion of the 125,000-square-foot facility is expected by the end of 2017.
The building will include outpatient clinics focused on administering radiation therapy, providing chemotherapy infusion, taking images including ultrasound, mammogram and CT scans and doing lab work. A separate space will be devoted to women, and another will offer end-of-life care.
Cancer patients who need to stay overnight in the hospital will continue to be admitted to Parkview Regional Medical Center, but more than 90 percent of cancer care is delivered in an outpatient setting.
A resource center in the new cancer institute will offer emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families. An appearance center will offer specialty items, including wigs and scarves. Genetic counseling will be available. And counseling sessions will be offered to survivors.
Doctors will continue to refer childhood cancer patients to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
Parkview now sees about 1,500 new cancer cases each year, Packnett said. That number doesn’t include patients who were diagnosed in previous years and come in for checkups or who need treatment because cancer has returned.
New jobs will be created when the cancer center opens, but Packnett said it’s too soon to speculate how many.
Parkview plans to offer personalized care by coordinating efforts of doctors, nurses, radiation therapists, social workers, dietitians and numerous others. The approach could be compared to the individual education plans schools use with some students who have special needs.
"Every cancer is different. Every journey is different," Packnett said. "It’s about bringing our team around the patient and the family like we’ve never done before."
Dr. Roy Robertson, a cardiologist, had a front row seat for the announcement. Most people don’t realize how many parts of the body are affected by cancer treatments, he said.
Robertson works with cancer patients, monitoring their heart function in response to chemotherapy drugs. He believes integrating his and other specialists’ efforts with cancer doctors’ treatment plans is crucial to providing the best care.
Putting caregivers under one roof should make it easier for them to coordinate efforts, officials said. Now, patients might be sent to various locations for specialists’ appointments or to receive treatment, financial guidance and emotional counseling.
Increased communication should eliminate some expenses, such as tests that are repeated unnecessarily, Packnett said.
But communicating across specialties might not come naturally, he acknowledged. Packnett will require staff to take teamwork training over the next two years.
A significant asset that Parkview brings to the cancer treatment table is the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, the facility where Wednesday afternoon’s announcement was made to an audience of about 250 Parkview employees.
The $20 million center, which opened just a few months ago, houses medical professionals who are researching cancer, heart disease, neurological conditions and orthopedics. Officials hope to reduce the amount of time between medical breakthroughs and patients’ access to them.
"The timing couldn’t be better," Packnett said about launching the cancer center project. "We don’t want people to have to travel all over the place" to participate in clinical trials for new cancer treatments.
The cancer institute has been discussed at the Parkview Health board level for about two years, he said. Board members voted last week to go ahead.
Dave Haist, chairman, said the project fits Parkview’s mission of improving health and well-being in all the communities it serves.
Dr. Neil Sharma, an interventional gastroenterologist, said Parkview wants to be able to meet all of its cancer patients’ needs through a coordinated process.
"That’s never been offered here in this region before," said Sharma, who is employed by Parkview Physicians Group.
Sharma thinks Parkview Health falls into a sweet spot, sizewise – small enough to avoid crippling bureaucracy but large enough to afford an $80 million investment.
Packnett stressed that he sees academic centers in Indianapolis and Chicago, among others, as potential partners in providing cancer care rather than as competitors.
The number of cancer cases is increasing every year, according to data from the American Cancer Society. Demand is being driven by a growing and aging population, Parkview officials said.
Experts have projected that the number of new cancer cases will increase by 55 percent by 2030.