Guided by love: 4 whose careers were inspired by family members who fought cancer


A mother who died of cancer inspired her daughter, now a nurse practitioner, to care for cancer patients. Other family members similarly influenced the career paths of a radiation therapist, a nurse and a medical student to work in the fields of hematology and oncology, which deal with blood disorders and cancer.

Here are their stories:

Her sister’s treatment showed her the value of nursing

Nurse Meghan Lewis

Nurse Meghan Lewis (photos by Robert Mescavage)

Nurse Meghan Lewis is the clinical leader of the blood and bone marrow transplant program at Upstate University Hospital. Her job is both “bedside and leadership,” she says, describing it as being “the point person for how the floor is running.”

Generally, her patients are adults newly diagnosed with acute leukemia (also lymphoma and myeloma) who stay for several weeks and go home when their immune system is strong enough.

“It’s a very vulnerable time for them. I think nursing plays an important role in helping them process the diagnosis,” she says.

Patients with blood-related cancers like leukemia tend to stay in the hospital for a long time, so “you build relationships with not just patients but with the whole family. That part is very important to me.”

“I lost my sister (Laura) when I was 10. She had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. She was 15 when she passed away, 27 years ago.

“I always wanted to be a nurse. My mom and both grandmas were nurses, but growing up and remembering the impact nurses had on not just her but on us as her siblings really left a lasting impression on me,” Lewis says.

Laura was sick for 18 months and had to go out of town for some treatments, which were not done at Upstate at that time.  This was years before the Upstate Cancer Center and the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital were built.

Recalling her sister’s time in the hospital, Lewis said, “The nurses then treated us as though we were just as important as she was, which is hard to do when there’s a sick kid in the family. They always let us into playroom with her and let us spend time with her there.”

“My parents were great about it, too. We all had special days at home or with my mom and Laura. I didn’t have the feeling that she got all the attention. It was a very inclusive experience for all of us, a lot of it coming from my parents but also from nursing and physician involvement.”

“As a nurse, sometimes you want to take away that burden and be a bridge between the doctor and the patient. I feel that nursing has a crucial role in trying to make everything more manageable and being the patient’s strongest advocate.”

Her aunt’s disease led her to seek answers

Medical student Christina Marcelus

Medical student Christina Marcelus

Christina Marcelus, heading into her fourth year as a medical student, hopes to work in hematology and oncology as a physician, doing research and treating patients.

“When I was in middle school I had an aunt I was very close to who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was my first exposure to breast cancer. I didn’t know what it meant. I thought you get sick, someone fixes it, and that’s the end of it.

“I remember being confused — my aunt, instead of getting better, was getting worse. I couldn’t understand how medicine was failing her.

“I was upset because maybe the doctors weren’t doing what they needed to do. I was not understanding that cancer can’t always be cured, that medicine is not absolute, that there is room to explore more, understand more, a lot of unknowns about medicine.

“Since then, I took an interest in science, and experimentation … to ask a complex question and find information about how to understand that question. This was my first insight into that.”

Marcelus was the first person in her family to go to college, where she majored in biology and women’s studies. She says she realized her aunt faced racial and socioeconomic, as well as medical, issues, which affected what kind of health care she was able to get.

Her questions about cancer led Marcelus to do research in a Harvard professor’s laboratory through a mentorship program, where she looked at possible links between viruses and cancer and published her findings. This was her first exposure to oncology as medicine, she says. “I was on the other end of what I had seen as a kid going to the hospital with my aunt.”

“What makes me excited about medical oncology is the personal care and being the person who orchestrates the care.  And being the most important person at that time of the patients’ life is very important to me. As an oncologist you have a lifelong relationship with this person. Even if they are cured.”

She especially likes studying blood-related disorders, because it includes a range of non-cancerous but still potentially devastating illnesses, such as sickle cell disease. She also hopes to address issues of health care access and affordability as a doctor.

Some in her family are surprised that she would want to make a career in cancer research and treatment because they find it “morbid and sad.” She, however, says, “It’s a world full of excitement. I don’t feel there is another field that is as broad, unexplored, unique, open to change, so dynamic — it changes all the time, in how we treat patients.”

She was interested because grandparents had cancer

Radiation therapist Mary Gleason

Radiation therapist Mary Gleason

Oncological radiation therapist Mary Gleason knew in high school that she wanted to work in a cancer-related field someday.

“Both my maternal grandparents and my paternal grandfather all had cancer, my dad had a scare that turned out not to be cancer, and I had friends through the years that have had cancer,” she says.

“So, oncology was the route I was going to take, but I just couldn’t decide where in the world I wanted to be,” she says. She had hoped early on to combine her interest in cancer with documentary film-making, having pursued creative writing and cinematic studies in college, but that didn’t pan out.

She then shadowed a friend who works in radiation therapy, liked the emotional connection she saw between the patients and therapists and decided this could be her niche. “I was so excited to talk with patients and have personal relationships with them. I’m a people person, so it fits in with my personality.”

“I was close to my grandmother growing up, and she died of lung cancer,” Gleason recalls. As a radiation therapy student, “I met a patient with lung cancer. She was very kind to all of us, and she was the spitting image of my grandmother.”

Gleason had to explain the treatment process and guide the woman through it. “It was so very special to me to have my first interaction be with her, also to be able to be with her on treatment. I could help her and wanted to help her because I couldn’t help my grandmother.”

The patient “adopted” all of the students, brought them homemade baked goods and wrote a goodbye letter to all of them, thanking them for their care.

These days, Gleason works in the Hill Medical Center, a few blocks north of the hospital’s downtown campus. She sets up and administers radiation for patients, and although she likes the technical parts of her job, she especially enjoys giving people the best treatment possible. Her patients might come in for 10 or as many as 45 daily treatments, so she has a chance to get to know them.

And she still thinks of that long-ago patient who reminded her of her grandmother. “She gave me recipes she developed,” Gleason recalls, noting she still has some of those recipes displayed on her refrigerator, and she still uses the recipe for buttercream frosting.

She now works with her mother’s oncologist

Nurse practitioner Kristin Soper

Nurse practitioner Kristin Soper

Nurse practitioner Kristin Soper treats patients with solid tumors. Before that she cared for cancer patients as a registered nurse.

“My mom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer when I was 15. When she was here (at Upstate) getting treatment, I would see her with all the nurses, and she would say, ‘I feel safe here.’ I’d become friends with all the nurses; everybody knew our names. It was kind of like a home away from home for us and inspired me to want to create that for all the patients I take care of,” she says.

Soper was 21 when her mother died, after fighting cancer for 6½ years.

“I knew I wanted to be a nurse as soon as I saw the impact that nurses made on the patients and the family. I felt that I could really touch a lot of lives by doing oncology. The impact is so great that you can make in patients’ lives. It’s an honor and a privilege to take care of people in that vulnerable state.”

Soper works with oncologist Sheila Lemke, MD, who treated her mother. Soper’s mother told Lemke that her daughter wanted to be an oncology nurse. “Now it’s come full circle to work with her,” Soper says.

“The most important thing is to be with the patients and make the most impact, so, I try to spend as much time as possible with the patients and their families,” she says. “As providers, we come in and often give the patients difficult news, and we’re there so briefly that I always want to be more than that. I strive to be the person who comes back to pick up the pieces and reinstall hope.”

“A lot of it is explaining what to expect,” she notes. Soper watched her mother seek comfort in the nurses, in knowing the process and in knowing that she was, although dying, still living and still in control of how she dealt with her disease. She tries to provide that comfort and hope for her patients; the same way her mother’s nurses did.

Are you inspired?

Upstate Medical University offers training for a variety of health professions that provide care to people with cancer. Three options:

Nursing –- Earn a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree. Upstate also offers a post-master’s program and a doctor of nursing practice degree.

Respiratory therapy –- A 21-month bachelor’s program is designed for those who want to help manage breathing problems caused by illness or injury.

Medical imaging — Bachelor’s programs in medical imaging sciences are five or six semesters. Additional training is available in computer tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and sonography.

Learn more at:

Cancer Care magazine spring 2019 coverThis article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.



Posted in cancer, health care, health careers, medical education, medical student | Leave a comment

Mysterious ‘door’ guards cancer secrets: Researchers work to halt a strange, deadly process in the spread of breast cancer

Here’s how breast cancer can spread: A tumor cell (green, No. 1), is in direct contact with a macrophage (blue, No. 2) and an endothelial cell (red, No. 3). The macrophage is a part of the immune system, and the endothelial cell is part of a blood vessel wall. The tumor cell makes an invasive protrusion called an invadopodium (white arrow) that cuts a doorway into the blood vessel. Other tumor cells (green, marked with *) then leave the tumor, pass through that opening into the bloodstream and travel to new parts of the body, where they can start new tumors. Collagen fibers are shown in purple. This illustration is based on live microscopic imaging of a mouse with a mammary tumor (image courtesy of Peng Guo)

How breast cancer can spread: A tumor cell (green, No. 1), is in direct contact with a macrophage (blue, No. 2) and an endothelial cell (red, No. 3). The macrophage is a part of the immune system, and the endothelial cell is part of a blood vessel wall. The tumor cell makes an invasive protrusion called an invadopodium (white arrow) that cuts a doorway into the blood vessel. Other tumor cells (green, marked with *) then leave the tumor, pass through that opening into the bloodstream and travel to new parts of the body, where they can start new tumors. Collagen fibers are shown in purple. This illustration is based on live microscopic imaging of a mouse with a mammary tumor. (image courtesy of Peng Guo)


Double agents, secret doorways, infiltration … it sounds like a spy thriller, but it’s how some breast cancers can spread, and eventually kill, a prominent researcher says.

Scientists hope that this medical drama, which plays out at a microscopic level, holds keys to better diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

While primary breast cancer tumors can often be treated effectively, comparatively little progress has been made in treating breast cancer after it has spread.

In most cases, death from breast cancer happens only after it spreads to places like the brain, lungs, bone marrow or liver.

John Condeelis, PhD, is a professor, co-chair and holder of the Judith & Burton P. Resnick Chair in Translational Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he also co-directs the Biophotonics Center and Integrated Imaging Program.

John Condeelis, PhD, is a professor, co-chair and holder of the Judith & Burton P. Resnick Chair in Translational Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he also co-directs the Biophotonics Center and Integrated Imaging Program.

Researchers can study cancer cells in a laboratory, but they learn much more by watching those cells inside a living body — how they sneak away from the tumor and what role the body’s immune system might play, says John Condeelis, PhD, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

In the past several years, high-powered microscopes and special lasers have allowed his research team to peek inside a live mouse with breast cancer at a magnification not previously possible, says Condeelis.

He spoke of his findings in a lecture at Upstate Medical University sponsored by the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund of CNY. Doctors and scientists at academic medical centers such as Upstate have frequent opportunities to hear from leading researchers this way.

Condeelis’ team has learned that migrating cancer cells commandeer strands of nearby collagen tissue as miniature highways and head toward blood vessels.

That’s when a strange thing happens. Bloblike immune cells called macrophages, which would normally engulf and kill invaders, do not destroy these traveling cancer cells.

Instead, when they are in a cancerous environment, the macrophages act as double agents, he says. Rather than trying to kill the cancer cells, the macrophages send messages that encourage cancer cells to migrate.

What’s more, the macrophages and the cancer cells pair up, move to a nearby blood vessel and conspire with a blood vessel wall cell there to create a doorway into the vessel that will open and close at regular intervals. Condeelis and his fellow researchers describe this doorway as a “tumor micro-environment of metastasis,” or TMEM for short.

This doorway is what allows cancer cells to pass into the bloodstream and travel all over the body. These circulating cancer cells then form new tumors in distant spots and begin the process all over, creating additional doorways and more tumors.

“This is how metastases kill people,” Condeelis said. “It’s the perfect killing machine, an absolute catastrophe,” he says of the circulating cancer cells. “You have to stop tumor cells before they can get out of the tumors, wherever these tumors are in the body.”

He hopes that drugs can be developed to intercept that communication between macrophages and cancer cells, then “shut the doorway, block the highway and kill cancer cells.

“We think we have figured out how to close the door,” he says. Using the drug Rebastinib as a doorway inhibitor, combined with chemotherapy, greatly increases survival rates by stopping the cancer’s progression, he says. The drug, still in development, is well tolerated in mice. In human trials, the vast majority of patients saw complete removal of circulating cancer cells, with no side effects, he says.

“Dissemination is the key to controlling metastasis,” he says. “You’ve contained the disease, which buys time to kill the residual cancer cells with chemo or radiation.”

The researchers have also observed markers to help in determining prognosis and treatment.

His lab has worked with other teams at Einstein as well as Montefiore Health System, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medicine. This work might also apply to other cancers, including those of the pancreatic ducts, prostate and lungs, he says.

See how cancer spreads

Condeelis’ lab has produced a short video, “Spying on Cancer Cell Invasion,” using animation and high-resolution microscopic images of mice cancer cells, to show how a TMEM, or cancer “doorway,” works. Click here to view it.

Breast cancer quick facts

  • The average American woman has about a 12 percent chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her life.
  • Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women, after skin cancers, with about 250,000 new cases diagnosed annually.
  • Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. The chance that a woman will die from breast cancer is about 1 in 38, or 2.5 percent.
  • Overall breast cancer death rates dropped 39 percent between 1989 and 2015.
  • 81 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed among women ages 50 years and older, and 89 percent of breast cancer deaths occur in this age group. The median age at diagnosis for all women with breast cancer is 62.

Sources: American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health

Cancer Care magazine spring 2019 coverThis article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.




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Summer camps for kids with cancer: A chance to let them savor nature

Little girl playing on a streamBY AMBER SMITH

Summer camp means days full of swimming, hiking and s’mores, but for kids affected by cancer, it can provide more than fun memories.

Camp organizers say sleepover camps for youth with serious illnesses provide a break from a routine that is often filled with medical appointments, and a chance to regain confidence and independence.

Some camps are designed for kids with cancer and other serious illnesses, some involve siblings, some are for kids who have a parent with cancer. Several throughout New York and nearby states do not charge campers.

“The environment of camp creates such a safe space to talk about their parent’s cancer,” says Madeline Merwin, a senior at Syracuse University who volunteers at Camp Kesem. She was a camper at the age of 12, after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. At a camp in California, where she lived, Merwin remembers an empowerment ceremony where a 6-year-old boy stood up and, without crying, explained how Camp Kesem was giving him the strength to return home and celebrate his mother’s life. “I think about him often, still,” she says.

The Children’s Oncology Camping Association International is a professional organization that connects summer camps that serve children and families touched by cancer across the globe.

“What’s most important for an oncology camp is to provide a normal experience, but in an environment where medical needs can be addressed if a child needs them,” Dave Smith says on the group’s website. He’s senior director of Camp Fantastic in Virginia.

The camps shown above in New York, Pennsylvania and Maine are listed by number below.

The camps shown above in New York, Pennsylvania and Maine are listed by number below.

8 special overnight camps to consider

1. Camp Adventure

Origins: parents started the group, Kids Need MORE (which stands for Motivational Recovery Environments) in 1990 with the belief that fun heals

Who can go: for children ages 6 to 16 with cancer, and their siblings

When: August 19-25; day camp is offered throughout July

Where: Camp Quinipet at 99 Shore Road, Shelter Island Heights, N.Y. (Suffolk County)

2. Camp Dost

Origins: sponsored by the Danville Ronald McDonald House, Camp Dost is designed to give pediatric cancer patients the chance to enjoy a summer camp experience without worrying about medical care

Who can go: children age 5 to 18 who have been diagnosed with cancer, plus a sibling; also a 24-hour camp option for 4- and 5-year-olds

When: July 6-12

Where: Camp Victory, a special-needs camping facility in Millville, Pa. 

3. Camp Good Days and Special Times

Origins: celebrating its 40th year, the organization provides free programming to more than 1,500 children annually, thanks to community donations

Who can go: for children affected by cancer or sickle cell disease and their siblings; also offers adult retreats

When: various weeks starting in May

Where: Keuka Lake in Branchport, N.Y. (Yates County)

4. Camp High Hopes

Origins: because many camps do not accept children with bleeding disorders, which require specialized knowledge and care, Camp High Hopes launched a summer camp for boys with hemophilia in 1985

Who can go: boys age 7 to 17 with bleeding disorders such as hemophilia and von Willebrand disease

When: July 28-Aug. 3

Where: Camp Aldersgate, 7955 Brantingham Road, Greig, N.Y. (Lewis County) 

5-7. Camp Kesem

Origins: founded in 2000 at Stanford University and now offered through several college campuses

Who can go: for youth ages 6 to 18 who are impacted by a parent’s cancer

5. When: June 30-July 6 (through SUNY Stony Brook)

Where: Camp Herrlich, 101 Deacon Smith Hill Road, Patterson, N.Y. (Putnam County) 

6. When: Aug. 11-16 (through Syracuse University)

Where: Camp Echo Lake, 177 Hudson St., Warrensburg, N.Y. (Warren County) 

7. When: Aug. 18-23 (through Cornell University)

Where: Camp Lakota, 56 Park Road, Wurtsboro, N.Y. (Sullivan County)

7. When: Aug. 25-30 (through Columbia University)

Where: Camp Lakota, 56 Park Road, Wurtsboro, N.Y. (Sullivan County)

8. Camp Simcha

Origins: started in 1987 by the international children’s health support network Chai Lifeline

Who can go: youth ages 6 to 20 battling cancer and blood disorders, in active treatment or post-treatment

When: Two-week camps for girls in June and July; for boys in July and August

Where: 430 White Road, Glen Spey, N.Y. (Sullivan County)

9. Camp Sunshine

Origins: founded in 1984 as a retreat to provide respite, recreation and support 

Who can go: children with life-threatening illnesses and their families

When: 25 sessions are offered, not just in summer

Where: 35 Acadia Road in Casco, Maine, on the shores of Sebago Lake

10. Double H Ranch

Origins:  Philanthropist Charles R. Wood and actor Paul Newman started the Double H Ranch in 1993; it’s the second of a worldwide network of “Hole in the Wall Gang” camps for children with serious illness that Newman founded in 1988

Who can go: children and siblings between ages 6 and 16 who function at a cognitive age of at least 6 and who have a medical diagnosis of cancer, sickle cell disease or one of several other diagnoses

When: individual weeks start in June and go through August

Where: 97 Hidden Valley Road, Lake Luzerne, N.Y., in the Adirondacks (southern Warren county)

Cancer Care magazine spring 2019 coverThis article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.

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Science Is Art: A close-up look at an enzyme

V-ATPases enzyme The V-ATPases enzyme (above) is present in every cell of the body, and also in plants and yeast. It has a connection to many diseases, including cancer and Parkinson’s. Upstate biochemist Patricia Kane, PhD, focuses her research on yeast cells.

Patricia Kane, PhD

Patricia Kane, PhD

Kane, a professor who leads Upstate’s department of biochemistry, was recently awarded a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue her lab’s research into how cells regulate pH.

One of her projects studies how the V-ATPases knows where and how to help cells regulate pH. Kane has shown that the enzyme interacts with lipids at specific locations in the cell, and these interactions can make the enzyme more active at those locations. “There might be a code for the lipid within the enzyme, and we want to understand that code,” Kane says.

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.






This article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Healthmagazine.

Posted in health care, research | Tagged

 A historical look at 5 popular heart medications: Are you taking any of them?


Harold Smulyan, MD

Harold Smulyan, MD

Some of the newer cardiac drugs were chemically designed in laboratories before going through years of expensive clinical trials and eventually gaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Some of the older drugs, which are still in use today, were discovered by accident — and spent years becoming accepted, purified and widely used.

Harold Smulyan, MD, a professor emeritus at Upstate who specializes in cardiology and enjoys history, researched aspirin, atropine, digitalis, nitroglycerin and quinidine. He published “The Beat Goes On: The Story of Five Ageless Cardiac Drugs” in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences in 2018. This information is pulled from his work.

Hear Smulyan discuss these drugs in a podcast/radio interview with Upstate’s “HealthLink 0n Air.”

willow treeAspirin

Discovered: 4,000 years ago

Came from: bark and leaves of the willow tree, whose sap contains salicin, which the body metabolizes into salicylic acid

First used: to treat pain, fever and inflammation

Documented in: clay tablets left by the Assyrians and Babylonians; also recorded use among Egyptian, Chinese and Greek civilizations in 1300 BC; by Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) and Roman anatomist Galen (200-216 AD); and by an English reverend in 1763 who wrote about the relief of fever in 50 patients, many of whom probably had malaria

Synthesized: around 1860; because salicylic acid was a gastric irritant that could cause bleeding in large doses, the Bayer company sought chemical analogues that would be better tolerated and eventually made aspirin available in tablet form in 1900

Used today to: relieve pain, reduce fever, prevent vascular heart disease

Side note: A pharmacist at Bayer who worked on an aspirin analogue was preoccupied at the time with the sales potential of a new Bayer cough remedy synthesized in 1897 called heroin.


Discovered: by ancient Greeks

Came from: glossy-coated black berries of the deadly nightshade plant

First used: as a cosmetic for women (Cleopatra used atropine to dilate her pupils in the last century BC), and a poison for assassins (the military made a deadly paste from atropine for the tips of their arrows during the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages)

Documented in: Greek mythology, with the plant being named Atropos, after one of the three goddesses of fate and destiny

Synthesized: by a German chemist in the 1830s

Used today to: increase slow heart rates or improve conduction in some types of irregular heart rhythms; and as an antidote to accidental organophosphate poisoning and to nerve gases used in warfare

Side note: Attracted to the sweetness of the berries, people have been poisoned accidentally


Discovered: as one of more than 20 herbs brewed in home remedies for perhaps hundreds of years before the 1700s

Came from: leaves of the foxglove, a tall wildflower with purple, bell-shaped blossoms

First used: as a treatment for “dropsy,” or edema caused by a buildup of bodily fluids, as described in 1775 by English physician and botanist William Withering, who is credited with identifying the therapeutic properties of digitalis after persuading an old woman to share the ingredients of a tea she made

Documented in: a 207-page book of Withering’s records and personal observations on the use of digitalis in 158 patients

Synthesized: commercially in the 1900s

Used today to: treat heart failure and atrial fibrillation

Side note: Withering belonged to a group of intellectuals who gathered monthly and included Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin, pioneer of the theory of evolution), James Watt (inventor of the steam engine), Joseph Priestley (isolator of oxygen) and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin

nitroglycerin chemical structureNitroglycerin

Discovered: in the 1840s

Came from: the nitration of glycerin

First used: as an explosive, around the same time physicians were documenting how the chemical liquid relieved intense chest pains in their patients

Documented in: British medical presentations (amyl nitrite) and papers (nitroglycerine) as early as the 1860s; by the end of the 19th century, nitroglycerin was the established form of therapy for the relief of chest pain from coronary heart disease, or angina pectoris

Synthesized: in 1882 by Parke Davis & Co., which produced a pill in five different strengths, after initial use as a liquid medication

Used today to: relieve angina pain and treat heart failure by dilating peripheral veins; also remains the active ingredient in dynamite

Side note: While studying chemistry and engineering, the Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel spent a year in Paris, where he met the Italian chemist who nitrated glycerin but believed it was too dangerous to have practical use. Nobel saw its potential and took it back with him to Stockholm, where he and his father eventually succeeded in creating dynamite. But their research led to several serious explosions, one of which took the life of Nobel’s younger brother, Emil. Later in life, Nobel developed angina pectoris. His physicians advised him to take nitroglycerin, but he declined. He died in 1896 at age 63, leaving the majority of his wealth to establish five Nobel Prizes

cinchona treeQuinidine

Discovered: around the 1630s

Came from: powdered bark of the cinchona tree; the name given to the therapeutic substance was quinquina

First used: to relieve the fever of malaria

Documented in: accounts of Jesuit missionaries in South America using the powdered bark to treat fever, although legend suggests the native population was already using it for that purpose; two volumes published in 1749 are the first to reference the use of cinchona alkaloid in the treatment “rebellious palpitation,” likely the cardiac arrhythmia known today as atrial fibrillation

Synthesized: by American scientists in 1944, quinine was too late to save thousands of World War II troops who died of malaria in Africa and the South Pacific

Used today to: treat atrial and ventricular arrhythmias in selected patients, but quinidine is no longer recommended by the American Heart Association for treatment of atrial fibrillation; medications other than quinine are now used to treat malaria

Side note: A Portuguese doctor isolated the first alkaloid of quinquina, calling it cinchonine, but the more effective second alkaloid was isolated by two French pharmacists, who called it quinine. In the 1850s, an impurity of quinine was isolated and called quinidine

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

Posted in drugs/medications/pharmacy, health care, heart/cardiovascular, history, research | 1 Comment

Adventures with Phred: Stem cell transplant resets body’s immune system

Doug Reicher, left, with Jeffrey Pu, MD, PhD. (photo by Richard Whelsky)

Doug Reicher, left, with Jeffrey Pu, MD, PhD. (photo by Richard Whelsky)


Doug Reicher, 65, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last summer. His treatment at Upstate University Hospital began with intravenous chemotherapy, which meant he would need to be connected to a device on an IV pole that would keep the medications flowing.

Doug Reicher dressed his IV chemotherapy pole in a tie and named it ”Phred.” (supplied photo)

Doug Reicher dressed his IV chemotherapy pole in a tie and named it ”Phred.” (supplied photo)

“He has named it Phred and dressed him up a bit. Notice Phred’s snazzy tie,” Reicher’s wife, Camille Tisdel, wrote in June on their CaringBridge website. “The two of them will be attached, literally, for a while. The adventure begins …”

The couple shared an upbeat chronology of Reicher’s adventure, which has taken place over several weeks in the hospital and included not just chemotherapy but a stem cell transplant using cells donated by one of Reicher’s nieces. Today he’s recovering at home.

Stem cell treatment

Doctors and nurses at Upstate have long offered autologous stem cell transplants, where a patient’s stem cells are extracted from his or her body before chemotherapy and then returned. In 2018, they began offering allogeneic stem cell transplants under the direction of Jeffrey Pu, MD, PhD, director of the hematologic malignancies program and the stem cell transplantation therapy program.

Pu explains that “you can engage immune reactions” by using stem cells from a healthy donor who has been matched with the patient. “Those immune reactions can further kill residue or circulating leukemia cells or lymphoma cells.”

Niece Erica Reicher donated her stem cells to rid her uncle of leukemia. (supplied photo)

Niece Erica Reicher donated her stem cells to rid her uncle of leukemia. (supplied photo)

Reicher was one of the first patients to undergo an allogeneic stem cell transplant at Upstate. He is president of the housing nonprofit Christopher Community. Tisdel, his wife, works at Syracuse University.

For patients undergoing stem cell transplants, “Their white blood cell count goes to basically zero, so they are at high risk for infection,” explains nurse Meghan Lewis. The day they receive the transplant becomes Day Zero, and patients typically remain hospitalized for two or three weeks afterward.

Reicher wrote on CaringBridge when he was allowed to go home that “my cell and immune system will be that of an infant. I have to grow a new system and will have a functioning but immature system, just like a baby.

“Infection is the greatest risk, so I will have to be very careful at home with food, the house and visitors.” Eventually Reicher will receive a new series of immunizations against childhood diseases such as polio, measles and whooping cough.

2 types of stem cell transplant

Autologous stem cell transplant — a patient receives his or her own stem cells, which are removed from the patient’s body and frozen for safekeeping while he or she undergoes chemotherapy. Afterward, the stem cells are returned to the patient’s body. This is a treatment option for patients with multiple myeloma or lymphoma.

Allogeneic stem cell transplant — patients receive stem cells from a healthy matched donor. This is a treatment option for patients with leukemia or lymphoma that has relapsed.

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

Posted in blood/blood-related conditions/hematology, health care, patient story | Tagged , , ,

Airlifted to Upstate, North Country man undergoes lifesaving heart surgery and beats the odds

Chris Diaz was airlifted to Upstate University Hospital when an ultrasound performed at Canton-Potsdam Hospital showed a tear in a blood vessel in his heart. (supplied photo)

Chris Diaz was airlifted to Upstate University Hospital when an ultrasound performed at Canton-Potsdam Hospital showed a tear in a blood vessel in his heart. (supplied photo)


Chris Diaz is no stranger to fear or pain.

Diaz, 35, spent four years in the Army, including nearly a year in Iraq from 2009 to 2010. When you’re in the Army, if something hurts, you drink water and press on.

That’s what Diaz tried to do on Nov. 28, 2017, when he felt a surge of pain snake up his left arm and into his chest. Diaz was studying mechanical engineering at Clarkson University at the time, and finals were looming. He figured the pain was related to anxiety or stress because of his exams.

Army veteran Chris Diaz  graduated from Clarkson University six months after a life-threatening aortic dissection.

Army veteran Chris Diaz  graduated from Clarkson University six months after a life-threatening aortic dissection. (supplied photo)

“Honestly it felt like razor blades up my veins,” he says. “It felt like something I’d never had before — a crushing sensation around my heart.”

He drank water, but the pain got worse. His fiancée, a certified nurse assistant, said he looked pale and was sweating. She insisted he see a doctor. She drove him to the emergency room at Canton-Potsdam Hospital in nearby Potsdam. There, they listened to his chest and detected a murmur. An ultrasound revealed a much more serious condition: Diaz had an aortic dissection, which is when the large blood vessel of the heart tears. The surging blood can continue to tear the aorta, causing blood that should flow through the heart to spill into the body. In more than 50 percent of cases, the injury is fatal within 24 hours. Without surgery, up to 75 percent of cases are fatal within two weeks.

Diaz needed surgery immediately.

That’s when his memory of that day gets blurry. He remembers doctors starting pain medicine and telling him he was going to be airlifted to Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. He remembers the ambulance but not the helicopter. He remembers the airport but not his arrival.

He definitely remembers what he was thinking at the time: “I’m going to miss my finals because of this. I was just really mad this was going on,” he said

G. Randall Green, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at Upstate

G. Randall Green, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at Upstate

G. Randall Green, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at Upstate, was waiting for Diaz. He asked him if he wanted a mechanical valve or a tissue valve to replace the one that was tearing. Diaz chose mechanical. He woke up many hours later in the recovery room.

It wasn’t until later that doctors told Diaz how dire his situation had been. “My cardiologist said, ‘We weren’t expecting to see you again,’” Diaz recalls. His surgeon told him that if he’d arrived in Syracuse 30 minutes later, he probably would have died.

Green says Diaz’s case is memorable and remarkable.

“We were doing chest compressions when he came into the operating room. He had no heart rate, no blood pressure. He was basically not with us anymore,” Green said. “All of us looked at him and said we’ll do our best for this guy.

“It’s just unbelievable what the human body and the human spirit are capable of living through.”

Diaz spent eight days at Upstate, followed by a rigorous course of physical therapy to regain his strength. He took his finals from the fall semester the following March. Two months later, Diaz graduated from Clarkson with a degree in mechanical engineering. During the graduation ceremony, President Anthony Collins told Diaz’s stor and thanked him for his service.

No one knows why Diaz suffered the aortic dissection, something that normally occurs in much older patients. Diaz thinks it might be genetic, since his mother has a heart murmur. Chest trauma from serving in Iraq may have also contributed, he says.

More than a year later, Diaz feels like his old self. “I feel great,” he says. Medicine regulates his heartbeat and prevents blood clots, and he exercises every day. He and his fiancée have settled in Milford, outside of Oneonta, and are planning a summer 2019 wedding.

replacement mitral valvesWhich valve would be best for you?

If you need a heart valve replacement, you may be asked to choose between a mechanical valve (left) or one made of tissue (at right).

Generally, people younger than 60 have been apt to choose a mechanical valve because of its durability. But a mechanical valve, made from materials such as titanium and carbon, comes with a lifelong requirement to take a medication that reduces the risk of blood clots by thinning the blood. It may not be right for some people, including women of childbearing age.

People who choose a tissue valve may face the prospect of needing a second valve replacement operation years later. That’s because tissue valves, made from pig valves or cardiac tissue from cows, last only 10 to 20 years. Tissue valves are more popular with people over age 70 who don’t want to have to take a blood thinner, says G. Randall Green, MD, Upstate’s chief of cardiac surgery.

He said options changed about six years ago with the development of the transcatheter aortic valve replacement. This is a procedure in which a doctor inserts a catheter — a thin tube — into the patient’s groin and threads it into the heart. There, a stent is deployed with a tissue valve that takes the place of the diseased valve. TAVR, as it’s known medically, is only used for aortic valves that have stenosis, or a narrowing of the valve that restricts blood flow.

Green says doctors aren’t sure how long the transcatheter valves will last. The procedure is less taxing than an open surgery, so patients who want to avoid taking blood thinners may be OK with the idea that they may require a redo years later

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.




Posted in health care, heart/cardiovascular, patient story, surgery | Tagged , , , ,

 How the Upstate pharmacy saved him $20,537.14

Heidi King with Reginald Sanford at the Upstate Outpatient Pharmacy. (photos by Robert Mescavage)

Heidi King with Reginald Sanford at the Upstate Outpatient Pharmacy. (photos by Robert Mescavage)


He went through a series of imaging tests, looking for an explanation for the pains in his stomach.

After all the scans were complete, doctors delivered the news to Reginald Sanford of Syracuse. He had cancer in his liver and also outside of his liver. Surgery would not work, but medication might slow the growth and spread of the cancer inside his liver.

Reginald Sanford

Reginald Sanford

They wanted to prescribe Nexavar, a drug with a price tag of more than $20,000 per month.

“It totally blew my mind. I told them there’s no way I could come up with that. I ain’t got that kind of money. I’m retired. I’ve only got $1,000 a month. How am I going to come up with that?”

Sanford says one of his doctors consulted with someone from the Upstate Outpatient Pharmacy.

Two days later, he got a phone call from a pharmacist. “Mr. Sanford,” he recalls the voice saying, “I’ve got some good news for you.

“First of all, you don’t have to pay a penny for your Nexavar. And the other good news is, we’re going to get it out in the mail to you.”

Medication assistance coordinator Heidi King explains that after Sanford’s Medicare coverage and personal health insurance coverage paid their portions, the remaining cost was going to be $970 for a one-month supply. She was able to enroll Sanford in an income-based New York state program called EPIC – for Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage – which would pay $950. Then she located an endowment fund that would chip in $20.

King says “a lot of patients need financial help, especially with these types of medications.” Together with a colleague, her job is to help locate funding sources, particularly for patients whose prescription coverage leaves them with a huge copay.

Depending on each patient’s situation, she may find money through a foundation, a drug manufacturer or a government program. “The majority of the time, we’re able to get it down to a price that they can manage,” King says.

Pharmacist Eric Balotin, associate director of pharmacy enterprise, says, “We are always looking for ways to reduce copays and out-of-pocket expenses, whether it is $1,000 or $5. Our goal is to make the medications affordable to all our patients.”

Sanford believes he is doing well and that the cancer inside his liver under control. He realizes the day will come when the cancer outside of his liver will cause problems for him. Until then, Sanford dutifully takes two Nexavar pills in the morning and two at night.

Anyone can use the Upstate Outpatient Pharmacy

You do not have to be a patient at Upstate. The pharmacy is between the Upstate University Hospital lobby and the Upstate Cancer Center and can be reached at 315-464-3784. It’s open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends and is closed on major holidays.

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.


Posted in cancer, community, drugs/medications/pharmacy, health care, patient story | Tagged ,

A nonsurgical way to treat knee osteoarthritis


People with chronic knee pain may seek relief from physical therapy. They may try over-the-counter pain relievers, prescription painkillers or steroid injections.

A doctor at Upstate now offers another choice for people who are unwilling or unable to undergo a surgical knee replacement.

Xiaoli Dong, MD, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, provides a cooled radiofrequency procedure called “Coolief,” a blend of “cool” and “relief.” It has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to relieve chronic moderate to severe knee pain caused by osteoarthritis.

The procedure is accomplished without an incision, “using radiofrequency energy to deactivate the nerves responsible for sending pain signals to our brain,” Dong explains. Patients receive an anesthetic to numb the skin and reduce any discomfort from the needle. They return to normal activities within a week or two. Dong says pain relief may last up to a year.

Chronic knee pain is often the result of osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition that develops as wear and tear thins the cartilage between bones. The result can be pain and stiffness, swelling and difficulty walking.

To learn more, contact Dong’s office at 315-464-1569; click here to hear Dong explain the procedure in a podcast/radio interview with Upstate’s “HealthLink on Air.”

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine. 

Posted in arthritis, bones/joints/orthopedics, health care, HealthLink on Air, physical therapy/rehabilitation | Tagged ,

Back on the pitch – after back surgery

Back surgery patient Kendall Discenza plays on the soccer team at Hamilton College.

Back surgery patient Kendall Discenza plays on the soccer team at Hamilton College. (supplied photo)


For weeks, Kendall Discenza didn’t know what was wrong. The pain in her lower back became crippling, and she was left sobbing.  Surgery brought relief.

Discenza underwent a microdiscectomy at Upstate University Hospital. Lawrence Chin, MD, who leads the neurosurgery department, removed a herniated disc fragment between the 5th lumbar and 1st sacral vertebrae in Discenza’s lower back.

“You should see my scar. It’s so tiny,” she says.

Lawrence Chin, MD

Lawrence Chin, MD

Discenza, who plays soccer for Hamilton College, was lifting weights in January 2018 after her freshman season. She was doing Romanian dead lifts, intended to strengthen her hamstrings. Holding a straight metal bar, she bent forward at her waist, and then back up. She felt her back straining but didn’t think anything of it.  An achiness continued and grew worse over the next several weeks.

It was March before her health insurer gave permission for a magnetic resonance imaging scan. The images showed a herniation, where the disc’s interior protrudes outward, and Discenza began physical therapy. She also had cortisone injections. “But then it got worse, and worse and worse,” she recalls. “It got so bad, it got to the point where my mom came up (from the family home near Washington, D.C.) and was taking me to doctors in Syracuse.”

Discenza got an appointment with Denise Karsten, a chiropractor and registered nurse at the Upstate Brain and Spine Center, who went over the MRI with Discenza and her mother. “This is a pretty big herniation. You’re probably going to need surgery,” Karsten predicted.

At the time, Discenza was focused on wrapping up her spring semester. The pain was crippling at times. She remembers lying on the bed in her dorm one day, believing she was paralyzed. She realized she couldn’t put off treatment. She made an appointment to see Karsten again with Chin.

Surgery brought relief

Chin explained what would be involved in a micro-discectomy, a procedure intended to minimize the skin incision, muscle involvement and amount of bone removed in order to relieve the herniation. There is a small risk of nerve damage, but the procedure is almost always successful. Some patients go home the same day.

“I was asking him, ‘Am I going to be able to play soccer again?’ He was really reassuring and super kind, and he had such a good rapport. He made me feel really comfortable.”

Discenza went home with her parents for several days, worked on completing her schoolwork and prepared mentally for surgery. She pretty much had to lie flat because sitting was so painful. As she researched “microdiscectomy,” she learned that she was about to undergo the same procedure that New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski had three times to repair herniated discs.

She admits she was frightened. She expected she would have to stay overnight in the hospital.

When she woke up from anesthesia, “My legs were extended out straight. I pointed my legs up toward my body, and I knew that the pain was gone. The pressure was gone. I lifted my foot up, and the first thing I said to my mom was, ‘It’s gone. I know that it’s gone’.”

Chin says that’s not unusual. “If they’re in a lot of pain, they’re going to feel relief right away. That’s what I aim for.”

Discenza recovered with her parents at a Syracuse home they rented through Airbnb. “The next two days, it was tough to get up and walk,” she remembers. “It was pretty sore, but that’s part of what you have to do.”

Discenza was able to finish her schoolwork for the spring semester before her surgery. She spent the summer working with a physical therapist and personal trainer, in hopes of getting back to the soccer field by fall. It was important to her because, as she explains, “I’ve played soccer since I could walk. I’ve been playing my entire life.

“All summer, my goal was to be ready to play.”

She progressed from walking to doing core work to running. She had to rebuild her strength and stability to be able to play, and she had to convince herself that she was strong enough to play such a physical sport. When team training began, Discenza participated in all but scrimmages. Gradually, as she got stronger, she played in some games. “I got to be 100 percent around early October.”

Discenza is a sophomore majoring in sociology, on a pre-medicine track. She thinks she may want to go to an osteopathic medical school. “I might want to get into rehabilitation or become a functional medicine doctor.” She’s always been interested in health and wellness — and now she has experience as a patient.

Upstate Health magazine cover, winter 2019 issueThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

Posted in brain/spine/neurosurgery, health care, patient story, surgery | Tagged ,