For one relieved cancer patient, MGH is now around the corner

Carol Hess rests in one of the heated seats in the new MGH cancer treatment facility at Martha's Vineyard Hospital. With her is nurse Nina Thayer. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

When Oak Bluffs resident Carol Hess began her chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer at Mass General Hospital in February, she and her loved ones were quickly confronted with the many complexities that face an Islander who’s suddenly in a battle with cancer.

It meant traveling to Boston the day before the treatment for the requisite blood tests. It meant sleepless nights at a Holiday Inn. It meant sitting for eight hours in a busy room, with other cancer patients and their concerned loved ones, while an intravenous drip slowly delivered the chemicals that would hopefully ensure she was rid of the disease, and would definitely make her nauseous. It meant hoping Boston rush hour traffic didn’t make her miss the last boat. It meant hoping yet another winter storm didn’t cancel that boat.

On April 5, as previously reported in The Times [April 3, MGH oncologist describes cutting edge Island collaboration], the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center (MGHCC) began providing medical oncology and hematology services at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. A rotation of six Mass General oncologists, assisted by R.N. Sharon Spinney and Mass General Nurse Practitioner Jane Kelly, now give infusion treatments that were previously only available off-Island. While this marks another advancement in the remarkable transformation of MVH over the past decade, for Carol Hess, this was a life-changing event.

Two weeks ago Friday, Carol got her first chemotherapy treatment at MVH.

As always, her husband, John, youngest daughter, Chelsea, and her closest friend of 39 years, Susan Brown, were by her side. No one was stressed about traffic or missing the boat or Steamship Authority cancellations. Instead, Carol’s immediate concern was her limited options in the Scrabble game she’s playing with Chelsea and Susan. “I don’t have any vowels and I have like four C’s,” she said in mock annoyance.

“Mass General is a great hospital,” said Carol. “My doctor, Marcela Del Carmen, was fabulous — I can’t say enough about her. But it’s a big place. People come from all over the world. My first treatment, I was in a room with 20 other people. The second time I lucked into a private room because it was the only one available. It had a painting of the Edgartown lighthouse on it,” she said, laughing at the irony. “We were always leaving Boston at rush hour. You don’t need that kind of stress after a long day of chemo. It’s so much quieter and calmer here. It’s so much more relaxed.”

“This also saves us a lot of money,” said John. “The trips to Boston add up to over two thousand dollars. More if you miss your boat and spend the night in Falmouth.”

“And Dad’s such a jerky driver in Boston” joked Chelsea.

“I get us where we need to go,” said John. His wife and daughter laugh at the understatement. One gets the keen sense that Boston drivers are no match for this retired merchant sea captain, especially when he’s trying to get his ailing wife home.

“The second time, we made the ferry by about five seconds,” John said. “She got pretty nauseous that night. If we hadn’t have made the boat, she would have been in a hotel in Falmouth that night instead of her own bed.”

Asked how getting treatment at MVH compares with getting treatment at Mass General, soft-spoken Carol became effusive. “The affiliation Mass General has with the Vineyard is fabulous. You have the umbrella of the best of the best but here, in a more peaceful setting. I live a half mile away from here. When I’m finished today, I can be on my couch in five minutes.”

“Instead of being 23 floors up in a crowded room with a view of the Citgo sign, we have this,” Chelsea added, nodding to the view of the courtyard. Outside, the long Vineyard winter was finally losing its grip. Sparrows and a red-winged blackbird flitted on the budding branches of a silver maple. A blooming yellow hyacinth, so vivid in the sunlight it looked plugged in, confirmed the arrival of spring.

Carol will get her remaining two chemotherapy treatments at the new Hematology/Oncology facility at MVH, which will open the week of May 6. “There are three exam rooms and six infusion rooms, all of them private,” said Chief Nurse Executive Carol Bardwell on a recent tour of the pristine facility. “Four of them will have a view. Being on an island where everybody knows everybody, privacy is important. We’ve designed a small meeting room especially for family meetings with doctors and nurses. We’ve been trying to work this out for a long time. We started talking to MGH about a year ago and now, here we are,” she added proudly.

The prognosis is excellent for Carol Hess. Her cancer was detected in Stage 2, which meant it hadn’t spread and her lymph nodes were clear. (According to the National Cancer Society, ovarian cancer treated before it spreads outside the ovary has a 5-year relative survival rate of 92 percent.) She will have her final two treatments at MVH, in a private room, probably with a view, a half mile from her home. No more nights at the Holiday Inn. No more chaotic cacophony of a big city hospital. No more Boston rush-hour traffic.

Now, if she could only get a vowel.