Hollings Mobile Health Unit delivers lifesaving cancer screenings

Without a visit to her jobsite from the big blue Hollings Cancer Center bus, Rhonda Kierpiec might not be alive.

Kierpiec, a librarian at Goose Greek High School in her early 50s, never worried about breast cancer – never even thought about it. Her general physician told her 10 years earlier to schedule her first mammogram, but she put it off.

“It wasn’t a priority,” she said recently. “It wasn’t something I feared.”

But when a friend from work arranged for Hollings’ Mobile Health Unit to stop at their school in spring of 2016, Kierpiec walked out to the parking lot for an exam that would shape the next year of her life.

“It’s almost like God said, ‘If you’re not going to get a mammogram, I’m bringing the bus to you,’” she said. 

A week later Kierpiec received a call asking her to come to Hollings for an ultrasound. “I’m a librarian,” she said. “If I get curious, I’m researching.”

She learned that false positives happen often but that only a fraction of those cases prove to be cancer. She relaxed but made the appointment.

The ultrasound revealed calcifications and also a mass on the back of her chest wall.  Both were cancer. 

Kierpiec called her two sons, and she and her husband drove up to North Carolina to tell their daughter in person. Each time, she said, “We have a plan.”

The plan was a unilateral mastectomy and a round of chemotherapy every three weeks. Kierpiec worked Tuesday through Thursday and took long weekends to handle the side effects after the drugs kicked in.

She liked her infusions at Hollings. Kierpiec made herself comfortable in the oversized chairs with warm blankets, books and snacks that nurses and volunteers distributed. Her husband kept her company, and they became friends with the staff.

Rhonda Kierpiec rings the bell after completing breast cancer treatment at Hollings Cancer Center's North Charleston office.

“Everybody from the person checking me in and checking me out to technicians and nurses – everyone -- was amazingly professional and compassionate,” Kierpiec said. “I never feared, from the time I had mammogram until today, what my prognosis was.”

The Hollings Cancer Center Mobile Health Unit began in 1998 as a way to provide education, outreach and screenings – including mammograms, skin checks, Pap tests and pelvic exams. Private gifts help to keep the bus on the road.

One supporter, Hollings Cancer Center Advisory Board member Jan Childress, called it “a ministry.” “It reaches people with no other way to get to them,” she said. “If they’re not going to come to you, you pull up to them. I love that we stepped up to make a difference.”

Her husband, an MUSC alumnus, died nine years ago from base of tongue cancer, after receiving his diagnosis at Stage 4. Childress said she sees potential in the mobile unit to provide some patients with life-changing earlier detection.

“If you can catch something at Stage 1,” she said, “you have a greater chance at recovery, a much greater chance of having longevity and quality of life.”

Hugh Leatherman, President Pro Tem of the South Carolina Senate, championed the mobile unit early on as a resource in cancer prevention and treatment and a way to bring screening access to underserved populations.

“There are women at home with their families right now because of the mammography unit,” Sen. Leatherman said. “This is just one of the reasons, of many, that I am proud to support the center’s efforts.”

Kierpiec is one of those women. Her hair began growing back in January. On July 31 she welcomed a third grandchild to her family. And one week later, on Aug. 7, she rang the bell to signal her final breast cancer treatment.

“If I had not had that mammogram in that bus,” she said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”