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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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With 6 Months to Live, State-of-the-Art Virtual Tumor Board Gives Navy Veteran Second Chance at Life

August 23, 2010

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The Virtual Tumor Board allows VA physicians throughout the South Central United States to tap into the specific and unique expertise of a team of cancer experts at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. Daniel Anaya, M.D., surgical oncologist and director of the DeBakey VA Liver Tumor Program, meets with Navy Veteran Roy Whitehead and his daughter during a follow-up appointment.

HOUSTON – Navy Veteran Roy Whitehead was told he had six to 12 months to live when he saw doctors near his small hometown of Morgan City, La. But his oncologist at the New Orleans VA Outpatient Clinic, Nancy Vander Velde, M.D., told him because he was a Veteran, he had access to a new pilot program in Houston that might save his life.

"The South Central VA Health Care Network recently established a Virtual Tumor Board at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center using state-of-the-art telemedicine technology to ensure Veterans have direct and immediate access to a multidisciplinary team of experienced and knowledgeable cancer care specialists," said Daniel A. Anaya, M.D., surgical oncologist, director of the DeBakey VA Liver Tumor Program, and an assistant professor of Surgery/Surgical Oncology at Baylor College of Medicine. "Mr. Whitehead’s medical case represents the typical patient, and one of the first of many, who will benefit from such a collaborative effort of VA health care professionals."

Each cancer case is different, and most cancers can be treated in a variety of ways. The goals of the VA Virtual Tumor Board Pilot Program, funded by the Rural Health and Telemedicine Office of the South Central VA Health Care Network, are to improve the quality of cancer care, increase patient and physician satisfaction, and extend expert medical care to rural areas.

Already deemed a success, the Virtual Tumor Board, using advanced videoconferencing equipment, allows VA physicians throughout the South Central United States to tap into the specific and unique expertise of a team of cancer experts at the DeBakey VA, explore many options for clinical therapies, expedite and improve the quality of care for patients, and continuously expand their knowledge base and refine their expertise to advance care.

Veterans, especially those with complex cases, benefit from the collective experience of a large group of specialists and the research prowess of a nationally renowned academic medical center. Along the way, they gain improved opportunities for remission or cure while their physicians agree on the best treatment plans.

"While he had had chemo, we thought it would be months before my father received any other treatment," said Amy Stratton, Whitehead’s daughter. "But, there was no waste of time. In just two weeks, the doctors told us their plan, we were in Houston, and my father had surgery. I was amazed how quick the entire process was."

Whitehead underwent liver resection, the surgical removal of a portion of his liver, in July. This operation removes various types of liver tumors located in one part of the liver. The goal of liver resection is to completely remove the tumor and the appropriate surrounding liver tissue without leaving any tumor behind. When a portion of a normal liver is removed, the remaining liver can grow back to the original size within one to two weeks

"The DeBakey VA is one of the few VA hospitals in the Nation to offer this complex surgery," said Anaya, who is also the principal investigator for the VA Virtual Tumor Board Pilot Program and a research scientist at the Houston Health Services Research and Development Center of Excellence.

"The Virtual Tumor Board, Dr. Vander Velde, and Dr. Anaya have been a gift and I am so grateful," said Whitehead who served aboard guided missile destroyers near Cuba in the 1960s. "We stayed at the Fisher House in Houston and I was treated like a V.I.P. by all the doctors, nurses, and staff. Today, I have very positive prognosis and a new outlook on life."

"We want to give Veterans access to the best hospitals and doctors anywhere in the world," said David H. Berger, M.D., M.H.C.M., Operative Care Line executive and professor of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. “The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center constantly strives to open new doors and make new medical alternatives available for our Veterans.”

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Awarded the Robert W. Carey Circle of Excellence Quality Award in 2007 and re-designation for Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services in 2008, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves as the primary health care provider for more than 120,000 veterans in southeast Texas. Veterans from around the country are referred to the MEDVAMC for specialized diagnostic care, radiation therapy, surgery, and medical treatment including cardiovascular surgery, gastrointestinal endoscopy, nuclear medicine, ophthalmology, and treatment of spinal cord injury and diseases. The MEDVAMC is home to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic; a Network Polytrauma Center; an award-winning Cardiac and General Surgery Program; a Liver Transplant Center; a VA Epilepsy Center of Excellence; a Health Services Research & Development Center of Excellence; a VA Rehabilitation Research of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; and one of the VA’s six Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Centers. Including the outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Lufkin, Galveston, and Texas City, MEDVAMC outpatient clinics logged almost one million outpatient visits in fiscal year 2009. For the latest news releases and information about the MEDVAMC, visit www.houston.va.gov.