Sarcoma Alliance Honors Surgeons for Outstanding Care

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Today, the national nonprofit announced the winners of its 2013 Outstanding Care Awards, based on patient nominations. Nominating letters for 2014 are now welcome.

Dr. Mark Douglas Duncan is chief of surgical oncology at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Dr. Mark Douglas Duncan is chief of surgical oncology at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

I want my patients to know how much I value them, to know the high regard I have for their thoughts, their fears, and their feelings, and to know that I will always be there for them.

The Sarcoma Alliance announced today that Mark Douglas Duncan, MD, at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore and Douglas Letson, MD, at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa have won the 2013 Outstanding Care Awards.

Sarcoma is a cancer of connective tissues, including bone, muscle and fat. Because it's rare, many specialists work in teaching hospitals, where they get rewarded for research grants, patents and publications -- but not patient care that goes above and beyond, said Alliance volunteer Suzie Siegel of Tampa. That's why the national nonprofit began its awards last year.

"I am honored and overwhelmed by this award, as it is the men and women (and their families) afflicted by sarcoma who face much greater challenges and have to work much harder than their treating doctors, and it is these sarcoma patients that are truly outstanding," said Dr. Duncan, associate professor of surgery and oncology, vice chair of the department of surgery, and chief of surgical oncology at Johns Hopkins Bayview.

"I want my patients to know how much I value them, to know the high regard I have for their thoughts, their fears, and their feelings, and to know that I will always be there for them. By establishing trust before treatment, we can work together to battle cancer.

"Often it is the moment coming out of the operating room when anxious eyes and hearts await the surgeon's words. Anyone can give the happy speech, 'We got it all out, no sign of spread, you did well' -- and don't get me wrong, I love giving that speech and frequently do so. But, perhaps more important, is demonstrating caring and compassion when the message is not so reassuring -- when we deliver bad news.

"Patients are always grateful to the doctor who will hold their hand, look them in the eye, and with humility and sincerity tell them the truth. We care for those we can cure, and share in their triumphs. We care for those we cannot cure, and honor and celebrate them."

He was nominated by liposarcoma survivor Rhonda Shackleford Ulmer, a mother of three teens in Severn, Md. "Dr. Duncan and his team, including Lisa Marcinko, PA-C, and assistant Samantha Baker, have been an amazing blessing to me and my family. Hearing the "C word" is very scary at the age of 34."

When she first saw Dr. Duncan, "he had just given a presentation on the disease and was kind enough to go through it with me. It made me feel very comfortable knowing, not only does he aim for a cure when he operates, but he also educates others in the field. He's very professional and has a high level of empathy -- the best bedside manners I've ever had while battling this disease. I love the way he takes time to listen to my children's concerns and explains to them in a language that they understand about this disease.

"I don't know how many surgeons call their patients the night before a surgery to calm their nerves or on the weekend to see how they're doing after they've been in the emergency room or allow them to email them when they have a concern."

Ulmer, a Christian who does not accept blood transfusions, said, "Dr. Duncan has not only respected my beliefs, he has also performed four bloodless surgeries successfully."

"A patient care award is the most important award a physician can receive," said Dr. Letson, Moffitt's executive vice president of clinical affairs, physician-in-chief, and chair of education and the sarcoma department. At the University of South Florida, he is a professor of surgery, radiology and orthopedics and director of the orthopedic residency program.

Heidi Kaldenberg of Woodward, Iowa, nominated him. "He is the amazing surgeon who saved our daughter's arm! The surgery he performed was pioneering, and believed to be the first of its kind in the USA. ... But the even more amazing part to us is that he did it for free!"

Her daughter, one of five children, was 8 when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2010. "Josalyn was days away from a scheduled amputation of her right arm, due to the tumor that had completely overtaken her humerus bone. But at the last minute, through a series of miraculous events, we found a glimmer of hope while searching online, and our doctor in Iowa put us in touch with Dr. Letson in Florida," said Kaldenberg. "Our lives changed that day.

"When it became evident that insurance coverage would be a problem, without the slightest hesitation, Dr. Letson volunteered to waive his fees and do the surgery free of charge. We have never heard of a doctor doing such a thing, before or since.

"He is undoubtedly a leader in his field, and is respected by peers and patients alike. It is so evident that his life's passion is helping sarcoma patients through surgery and research. But beyond this, there are so many ways he has gone the extra mile to show that he truly cares."

She gave examples: He answers questions without being in a hurry. He gave them his cell phone number, and he calls to check on Josalyn's progress. He arranged a visit from a former patient to encourage her. And he introduced them to Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, who honored Josalyn at his annual Richard's Run for Life.

"I wrote to Heidi last week to ask about Josalyn, and she let me know she and the rest of the family are all healthy and well," Gonzmart said. "That made my day."

Nominations are now open for 2014. For more information, go to The Alliance provides information and support to anyone affected by sarcoma.

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