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Anticipation builds for completion of new cancer center

Kathy Perkins is pictured at one of several new work stations being added for the 21 people, including physicians, who will staff the integrated Willmar Cancer Center. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- When they're finished with their cancer treatment, the last thing many patients want is to go back to the place where they were treated.

But not too long ago, Barb Hoeft encountered a former radiation therapy patient who returned to the hospital so he could see the progress of the construction on the new Willmar Cancer Center.

"He was excited for this whole experience, and he was done with his treatment," said Hoeft, director of the Willmar Cancer Center.

Anticipation is starting to build for the opening of the cancer center early next year. Work began this past spring on the $2 million project, undertaken by Willmar Medical Services.

Willmar Medical Services is a joint venture between Rice Memorial Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

Construction and renovation for the cancer center in the hospital's west wing are on schedule and will be complete some time in November.

Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Willmar Medical Services, calls the project "something we need to do for the community."

"I think it will be exciting to open this and show it off to the public," he said. "It's great when the hospital and clinic can work together and accomplish something."

For the first time, local cancer services -- medical oncology and radiation oncology -- will be housed under the same roof. Officials say it will help make the provision of cancer care more comprehensive, coordinated and patient-centered.

"I want every patient to feel the same way -- there's help," Hoeft said. "You're not here all by yourself."

Initial projections are for 60 to 70 patients a day, evenly divided between medical oncology and radiation oncology.

Holmgren said it's hoped the facility will become the place to which patients turn when they receive a cancer diagnosis.

"We would want to see it evolve into something where they look to us for their treatment and find it a warm, friendly environment and know they're getting top-notch treatment here," he said.

The first two phases of construction are already finished. When patients come into the cancer center, they now arrive at a new entrance and can sit in an expanded waiting area furnished with cushioned chairs and benches and lit by a row of windows.

The entire radiation therapy department has been refurbished -- "the ceilings, walls, floors, everything," Hoeft said.

Teri Beyer, chief quality officer for Rice Hospital, said one of the goals was to incorporate many of the soothing elements -- natural light, for instance, and a large saltwater aquarium -- found in the rest of the hospital.

"We wanted to carry that out in the design of the cancer center. I think it feels very appropriate and very consistent with that healing environment," she said.

Because the radiation oncology program was continuing to treat patients while the renovation was taking place, construction crews worked nights to get this phase done.

"We had to work around it," Hoeft said. "The staff was wonderful. Every night they had to move their equipment out."

The third and final phase, which started in August, is the most complicated: turning unfinished space, which was set aside when the hospital undertook a $50 million-plus expansion and renovation in 2002, into new space for medical oncology.

The relocation of medical oncology from ACMC to the hospital will more than double the amount of space devoted to cancer care.

Chemotherapy can be administered to up to 14 patients at a time, who will have the option of being treated in an open bay or in one of half a dozen semi-private cubicles with a view of the outdoors. The medical oncology area contains exam rooms and its own pharmacy.

Behind the scenes, the Willmar Cancer Center staff of 21 people will have new work space for charting, discussing and planning courses of cancer treatment, and carrying out clinical trials.

Although there's always been coordination between the medical and radiation oncology services, it's sure to increase once the two services are under the same roof, Beyer said. "The day-to-day interaction is so important," she said.

When the cancer center opens, Willmar Medical Services also will add a nurse navigator whose role is to help connect patients and families with the resources they need, whether it's a consultation with a nutrition expert or a meeting with a social worker.

At some future point, services for the growing population of cancer survivors will be developed as well, Beyer said.

At one time, Willmar Medical Services had hoped to be in the new cancer center by the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. There were delays, however, mostly necessitated by Rice Hospital's need to relocate some services to make room for the expansion of cancer services.

Hoeft sees it as worth the wait.

"To see the plan come to life is remarkable," she said. "To have a one-stop place to come to -- I think that's been a dream for many people. I think the staff have been waiting for this for such a long time."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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