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The Catalyst

Building hope: Children's Hospital leader tackles cancer and biggest career challenge

By Lauren Sausser
of The Post and Courier

Children’s Hospital administrator John Sanders is planning the largest capital project in the hospital’s history, a $350 million women’s and children’s pavillion, all the while fighting lung cancer that was diagnosed in 2007. by Grace Beahm, Post and Courier

In front of a packed room inside the MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center last summer, John Sanders said he expected that lung cancer would kill him.

"Unless something else kills me, this will. It's Stage 4," he said during a recent interview. "It's not something that can be eradicated. It's in both lungs. It's in one node. It's something that I'll have to deal with the rest of my life."

It's a sobering message from a 54–year–old man who has never smoked. Sanders, the administrator of the MUSC Children's Hospital, was diagnosed with the disease in 2007. Statistics show only 15 percent of patients with Stage 4 lung cancer live five years beyond their diagnosis.

"I'm working on seven. I'm part of five percent, so I'll take that," he said. "What Hollings has been able to do for me, not only am I still alive, but I'm living and having a good time."

That includes covering hundreds of miles every month on his bike and embarking on the biggest challenge of his career: building a new $350 million women's and children's hospital on the peninsula by 2019.

Sanders recently spent time with The Post and Courier to discuss the project, his health and his career path. The following interview has been edited for length.

Q: What brought you to MUSC?
A: I kind of combined a hobby with what I enjoyed and went to school up in Rochester, N.Y. —RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) — for biomedical communications medical photography.

After I finished my program, I had a lot of contacts here at MUSC. My dad graduated from here. His father graduated from here. His great-grandfather graduated from here. We had always vacationed in Charleston, so it was kind of a second home. It worked out that I was able to get a job in the photography department here.

I took pictures of anything from surgical procedures, I did rape cases, child abuse, you name it, to public relations–type work.

I worked in photography for about five years. In that time, I realized that I wanted to do some more, and I did have exposure to the administration. I went back and got my master's degree here in health services administration.

Q: What do you enjoy in your spare time?
A: I enjoy riding a bike and doing things with my family.
After I was diagnosed and had surgery, I couldn't run anymore and so I tried riding a bike and started doing it a little bit more and now it's kind of an addiction. My wife would probably tell you I ride a little too much.

Q: How did your doctor discover the lung cancer?
A: I found out by accident. About eight years ago, the Joint Commission was here doing a survey and I was following around one of the surveyors. We went through the heart and vascular area in Children's (Hospital) and Bill Springs was talking to him about a test we were doing called a calcium score, which is a CT scan that shows plaque and stuff in the heart.
I was thinking, "Wow. I need to do that because I have heart disease in my family."

I kind of forgot about it and a year later I thought, "Well I ought to go do it." I got a pediatric cardiologist to write me a prescription — I still have it on my bulletin board — to go get one done. I went down to see (the doctor) that afternoon. He showed me the scan, he was going through it. I saw him hesitate. He said, "Your heart looks really good. You don't have any problems." He said, "Did you have pneumonia in the past couple weeks?" No.

Within two hours, I was talking to a pulmonologist, then the next week, I had a bronchoscopy done, then I had a biopsy in my lung and in about two weeks, I had two lobes taken out on the right side.

No symptoms; I had a little bit of a cough, but nothing anyone would notice. Maybe when I think back I had some night sweats.

Then I went through a pretty rough course of chemotherapy.

About a year later, I got scanned and it was back in both lungs.

That's what kind of weird about mine, which is a good thing, it's slow growing. I have multiple spots on both sides, but the therapies I've gotten have kept them either stable, or when they start growing, I start therapy again and they zap certain areas with radiation. I've been able to be pretty productive.

Q: You've essentially worked nonstop since your diagnosis?
A: For the last three years, not many people would know when I had treatment.

I won't lie. You feel pretty bad for a week even for some of the therapies that weren't even that hard.

It makes you feel pretty miserable, but to me, it was kind of a challenge not to let it bug me. In fact, in the last chemotherapy I would do, usually I'd just go from here and walk over to Hollings and I'd come back to work.

When I'd get home, I'd go ride. To me, that was almost funny that I was able to do that and get the ride down. It didn't feel very good, but I wasn't going to let it get the better of me.

Q: Discuss the new hospital project.
A: There aren't many of us in administration that can say we built a hospital. It's really exciting.

Q: Why does Charleston need this new building if the existing Children's Hospital was only built in 1987?
A: It was built in a good way at that time, but the care of children has changed so much over the years.

In the ICUs, we have open bays, so there's no privacy for the families. Our volume has gone up. We've started moving into this building (the main hospital). To provide the kind of care that we know that we can, we need to have a bigger facility.

If you go in our rooms now, if the parent spends the night — and we encourage them to be there — you pull the bed out, you can't open the door to the bathroom.
We have kids that go through some of our oncology programs who are here up to 100 days. You can imagine how much stuff you accumulate. It just becomes a horror story.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: My team in Children's (Hospital) is amazing. The physicians here are so dedicated to the kids and my management team and the staff are just beautiful people.

If you see someone like me at my age with cancer, it's not a great thing, but is it that uncommon? No. But if you see a 3–year–old with cancer, I think most people would think that just doesn't make any sense. And so, again, to work in pediatrics, you've got to really want to. I think there's a passion with the staff in the Children's Hospital. It's very infectious and it's an amazing thing to watch.

Editor’s note: The article ran Aug. 22 in The Post and Courier and is reprinted with permission.

September 5, 2014



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