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Desert Companion

Meet five HEALTH CARE heroes - from cancer docs to devoted nurses - giving the community an RXfor WELLNESS

KingslyThe fighter: Dr. Edwin Kingsley

Hematologist and oncologist, Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada

Imagine a 7-year-old boy, so scientifically curious he can’t keep his hands off his home chemistry lab. His father died two years earlier. Now, his mother — at only 42 years old — is losing a battle with gastric cancer. It’s several decades ago, before the days of hospice care. The little boy and his two sisters watch their grandmother tend to their dying mother in her last days.

“It was a terrible experience,” recalls Edwin Kingsley, that little boy, who grew up to become a hematologist and oncologist at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada (cccnevada.com). “Yet, as ugly as it was, it wasn’t a totally negative experience. I saw the difference loving care can make for someone being treated for cancer.”

Kingsley admits that setting healthy boundaries is one of the best ways to stay strong and keep fighting in the war against cancer. Still, he is interested in every patient’s story. One of the best parts of the job, he says, is to simply sit and listen to people talk about their lives, answer their questions, and allay their fears when he can.

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“As part of residency, we’re required to rotate through the different specialties,” he says. “During my month in oncology, as soon as I walked onto the oncology floor, I knew that’s where my home would be. I immediately felt comfortable with cancer patients.”

Kingsley’s devotion to medicine carries him beyond the day-to-day work of bedside care. He leads numerous clinical trials and has authored nine research publications. He’s been an adjunct professor at Touro University for 14 years, and, for two years each from 2000 through 2006, was Sunrise Hospital’s chief of staff, the Clark County Medical Society’s president and the Nevada State Medical Association’s president. Colleagues describe him as a pillar in the community of cancer therapy.

Besides his personal history with cancer, Kingsley credits his faith for fueling his devotion to his work. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he laughs when asked how long he’ll keep practicing medicine: “Until they ask me to quit. My wife and I talk about doing a mission. If that call came, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Until then, I’ll continue to work. I may cut back, but I’ll keep my hand in medicine until I’m no longer mentally and physically fit to do so.”

However long that turns out to be, he adds, he will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to have been a doctor.

— Heidi Kyser

 

Nancy DonahoeThe friend:  Dr. Nancy Donohoe

Surgeon, Cardiovascular Surgery of Southern Nevada

As a young girl, Nancy Donohoe spent her weekends making rounds with her father, a general surgeon at The Donahoe Clinic in Sioux Falls, S.D., where her uncle and grandfather were also physicians. At home, she played nurse to her mother, a victim of polio.

From this unique childhood grew Nevada’s first female cardiovascular surgeon: a medical hero as renowned for her exceptional surgical skills as she is for her compassionate bedside manner.

“I think being a woman has a huge influence on the kind of patient care I give,” says Dr. Donohoe, a surgeon with Cardiovascular Surgery of Southern Nevada (cvsurgnv.com) and medical director of the Open Heart Surgery Program at the Heart Institute in the Summerlin Hospital. From 1994 to 2005, Donahoe was the only female heart surgeon in Nevada — and one of fewer than 50 in the country. Today, there are two in Vegas.

“By and large, surgeons don’t usually have a warm, fuzzy reputation,” says Donahoe, who cares for her patients as if they were family — seriously. For instance, she asks herself questions such as, “If this was my dad, would I want him to have this (surgery or medication), given his set of risk factors?” She says her male colleagues tell her she’s too sensitive. She says, “They’re just more pragmatic.”

 Donahoe spends Wednesday mornings in the office. She’s in surgery the rest of the week, and on call two weekends of the month. “Weekends can be exceedingly busy to not so bad.” The definition of “exceedingly busy”: On one memorable weekend, responding to calls at University Medical Center, Donahoe repaired a torn aorta to save the life of a car crash victim on Friday, then she turned around on Sunday to save a 19-year-old who’d been stabbed in the heart.

“It’s a really good feeling,” she says, after 18 years, to be frequently greeted by former patients in the grocery store and at the mall.

Discovering a familiar face on the operating table is another story: Responding to a middle-of-the-night emergency, Donahoe was rushing into the hospital when she saw in the waiting room a face she knew well from her favorite pizza place. The woman told Donahoe: I think you’re here to take care of my dad. Her father was suffering a ruptured abdominal aneurism. “It adds a bit of stress when you know the patient and the family,” says Donahoe. “But, you just can’t panic.”

Today, Donahoe’s favorite pizza guy is flipping pies again. After saving his life, Donahoe did him one better: To celebrate the Heart Institute’s 500th heart surgery, the heart doc threw a party for her staff at his restaurant. No doubt that got his ticker beating. — Chantal Corcoran

 

Hunter-JohnsonThe comforter: Leslie Hunter-Johnson

Nurse, Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center

Leslie Hunter-Johnson isn’t a doctor — and doesn’t wish to be. For as long as she can recall, she wanted to be a nurse. She has realized her childhood dream.

“It was one of those professions where there was a need,” she says. “But when I went back to graduate school, I learned a lot more about stroke and neurological ventilation and how they’re the leading cause of disability and death.”

Hunter-Johnson studied palliative care and brought her knowledge to Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center (sunrisehospital.com). In 2009, she helped start the Palliative Care department at Sunrise and now serves as the program coordinator.

Palliative care, a bridge between acute care and hospice care, has only been around for the last 10 years, and remains a new subspecialty across the U.S.

“It’s about managing symptoms aggressively and making patients comfortable,” she says. “Historically, neither medicine nor nursing offered much focus on pain management and end-of-life transition. Unfortunately this is something we’ll all go through, yet because death is a taboo subject, we spend no time thinking about it.”

For years, patients didn’t know they had choices, especially in Las Vegas, which is becoming a major retirement hub for the elderly. Of course, more than 50 percent of what Hunter-Johnson provides is emotional support. She does her job with such passion and commitment that her peers recently honored her as the March of Dimes Southern Nevada Nurse of the Year.

“I give families choices, spiritual options, and basically bring a complete picture to the decision-making table so they can make better choices,” she says.

She finds that anxiety enters the picture when families make decisions based on what they want rather than on what the patient wants. It’s always a good time, she says, to create an advanced directive. You can put it down in writing, and it’s free. A Living Will Lockbox (www.livingwilllockbox.com) doesn’t require notarization, only two witnesses, and is stored electronically at the Nevada Secretary of State’s office.

“It’s the most important document of your life,” adds Hunter-Johnson. “If you don’t talk about it now, what you want might never happen.”

Think about it: At 50, our bodies begin breaking down and chronic illnesses may take hold. By age 70, many of us might have two or three chronic illnesses, and not all of us want to end up in the intensive care unit being poked and prodded.

“Eighty percent of people don’t want to die in a hospital,” says Hunter-Johnson. “They want to make the journey at home.”

 

Florence JamesonThe Helper: Dr. Florence Jameson

CEO, Volunteers in Medicine

— Jarret Keene

Dr. Florence Jameson possesses the careful intonation and presence of a spiritual guru. A photo of her and the Dalai Lama sits in her office, an intriguing touch given her Catholicism. After chatting with Dr. Jameson, I realize it’s a miracle she agreed to meet this Monday morning. She spent all weekend delivering a dozen babies.

When people ask her how many deliveries she has conducted in her 30 years as an OB/GYN, she insists she doesn’t count.

“Each one is special,” she says. “Each mother is a personality never to be duplicated, her pregnancy and delivery unique. It’s like falling in love every time.”

Jameson found her calling at UCLA medical school, where she determined OB/GYN to be a compelling blend of family practice, surgery and delivery. After a residency at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in L.A., she set up private practice in Las Vegas in 1985. Not long after, she helped open a clinic that cares for incarcerated young girls at the Juvenile Justice Center of Southern Nevada.

“Having been raised a Catholic in L.A., I was taught to give food to the hungry,” says Dr. Jameson. “Growing up, I myself was a recipient of boxes of clothing from the nuns. That helping hand was so appreciated, so critical to our survival. It made all the difference and gave my family hope.”

The juvenile clinic was only the start of Dr. Jameson’s commitment to bettering the community. She also founded and serves as the CEO of Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada (vmsn.org), a free and charitable health clinic providing medical services to the uninsured. The first Volunteers clinic opened at Paradise Park in January 2010, and volunteer numbers —doctors, nurses, pharmacists — stand at more than 750.

“Even as a premed, I thought it would be wonderful to get involved in a free medical clinic,” says Dr. Jameson. “They were available when I was a kid, and the free clinic next to Cedars-Sinai has been there for more than 40 years. When I came to Vegas, I was surprised we didn’t have a free clinic.”

Indeed, with our city’s rapid growth and minimal taxes, Vegas has little money left over for social services. If you fall on hard times and become unemployed and uninsured, you have the least available Medicaid services. This explains why Volunteers is impacting our community. The organization’s volunteer doctors will provide about 6,000 patient visits this year, which translates into more than $3 million in services.

“It’s only natural that we want to help one another,” says Dr. Jameson. “It’s what life is about: random and purposeful acts of kindness. We just want to be loved and cared for. Nothing makes anyone’s day better than that.” — J.K.

 

BernsteinThe mentor: Dr. Jonathan Bernstein

Pediatric hematologist/oncologist

Caring about kids is in Jonathan Bernstein’s blood — in an odd, literal way, in fact. He remembers his father, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, teaching him and his brother and sister how to draw blood when they were as young as 10 or 11.

“We could always get a job as a phlebotomist if we needed to,” Bernstein says, with a laugh. “We followed my dad around everywhere. We all learned how he took care of kids and listened to parents.”

The siblings took these observations to heart. Bernstein’s brother became a pediatric orthopedist, like their father. His sister went into teaching, where Bernstein himself started out. Early on, he thought going into medicine meant being a surgeon, which didn’t interest him. During his night job in a hospital, he learned differently.

“I was doing anesthesia and, playing with the kids, I realized I could do just as much to help them as a physician as I could as an elementary school teacher,” he says. He went back to college, earning his M.D. from the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Today he is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist.

Besides his father, other people influenced Bernstein’s eventual career choice in the medical field, including his mother, a cancer researcher. For his Master of Science in applied biometry, Bernstein’s thesis advisor was a statistician for a children’s oncology group. The advisor had his head and face shaved for a cancer benefit — something Bernstein now does every year for St. Baldrick’s (stbaldricks.org). This national event, held on St. Patrick’s Day, invites participants to have their domes buzzed as a way of raising awareness about cancer in children — and raising funds to fight it.

Bernstein has been a St. Baldrick’s Foundation annual research grant recipient since 2007. The money goes toward Cure 4 the Kids Foundation, the nonprofit Bernstein set up to support the Children’s Specialty Center of Nevada, which he also founded. Why the vigorous fundraising? Bernstein refuses to turn away any patient based on a family’s lack of insurance or inability to pay their medical bills. The center’s doctors are paid either a salary or day rate, rather than by fee-for-service.

“I don’t want them to worry about pay,” Bernstein says. “I want them to focus on giving them the best possible care.”

Parents of Bernstein’s patients are astonished by his devotion to the kids. On the St. Baldrick’s Foundation website, one mother wrote of posting a late-night Facebook message and receiving an immediate reply from Bernstein, who talked her through the difficult moment.

“I’m inspired by the kids,” Bernstein says. “They’re marvelous. They have an outlook on life that they want to live as happily as they can.”

In his clinic, Bernstein fosters an environment designed to reduce children’s fear. He plays with them, offers counseling for bullying and academic issues, even teaches them to draw blood, using himself as the “patient” — a bit of his father’s legacy come to life in his own practice. — H.K.

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