NEW ULM — Janet Johnson says she’s never thought the cancer treatment at the New Ulm Medical Center was anything but first rate.
But there was a time when it did feel a little ... crowded.
“The very first room we were in was like a postage stamp,” she said last week while sitting through chemotherapy.
But if the previous area was like a postage stamp, the new area is like, well, a much bigger, better lit, more soothing version of the former postage stamp.
The New Ulm Medical Center’s cancer treatment took a giant leap forward recently. Not only did it add a few thousand square feet, it also renovated existing space and upgraded its equipment.
Perhaps most importantly, it has affiliated its cancer center with the Virginia Piper Institute, a Twin Cities-based major player in cancer treatment and research. Having that affiliation has allowed the center to offer cancer treatment options that weren’t available before and some that aren’t available in the immediate area.
Why all the change? Quite simply, the answer is growth.
Prior to the switchover, which occurred in November, demand for services was growing at a fast rate. Last year, the center saw 40 percent more patients than they’d seen four years prior.
The upgrade project, which was mostly a renovation of existing hospital space, made several significant improvements to the center’s ability to treat patients:
n There are now 12 chemotherapy infusion bays, where previously there were just six.
n Infusion bay chairs are now heated, and there is a private television at each one.
n New Ulm’s facility offers qualifying patients access to clinical trials as well as genetic counseling.
n They’ve added so-called “integrated therapies” such as massage, aromatherapy and music therapy.
n All nurses in the center are either certified oncology nurses or are in the process of becoming certified. Also, oncologist Ettore Piroso now works full time at the center.
Clinical trials are something new for the area and didn’t come until Virginia Piper came.
“It allows people to have access to the latest cutting-edge treatments,” said Lorna Holmberg, a registered nurse and Oncology Department manager.
To take part, patients must qualify. Most of the clinical trial medications they work with are in the so-called phase three of clinical trials. Such medications have usually been found to work on other kinds of cancer and are being redirected to other kinds of cancer to have their effectiveness evaluated.
“Usually you have to be in a metro area, or go to a Duke University or a University of Minnesota” to get access to clinical trials, Holmberg said.
Genetic counseling is another first for New Ulm Medical Center.
Anyone with a family history of cancer or who wishes to learn more about their genetic predisposition to developing cancer can speak with a genetic counselor. After a general assessment of probability, a genetic counselor will recommend whether it makes sense to move forward with genetic testing to get some answers on what the future might hold.
Piroso says the work done to upgrade the way the New Ulm Medical Center treats cancer patients has been “remarkable.”
“I haven’t seen such a collective effort before,” Piroso said. “My goal is for any patient who comes here to receive the best treatment available for cancer. That’s what people are looking for.”
It’s still a work in progress, he said, but the approach now is more focused on the patient.
And patients seem to agree.
LeAnn Krzmarzick, 55, of rural New Ulm said she sort of misses the “chumminess” of the old place. But she concedes the renovations have been an improvement.
“This is a lot more roomy and restful when you need it,” she said.
She loves the service, too.
“I’ve always been happy here,” she said. “I’ve even called them after hours and they’ve always called back.”
“I like coming here,” the Hanska native said. “If you don’t come, you kind of miss it.”