Combining high tech high touch

UF Health Proton Therapy Institute, first treatment center in the Southeast to offer proton therapy

By: Karen Dooley

Bev Snaith and her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, left their home in England to come to the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville with high hopes and a little apprehension.It was a scary decision for the single mother who had no idea what to expect from the people who were going to try to destroy her child’s brain tumor and no idea how Grace would respond to the treatment. It didn’t take long, though, for the two to feel at ease in what would be their home away from home for nearly three months as the proton therapy worked to shrink Grace’s tumor while sparing the surrounding tissue in her developing brain.

Grace Snaith

It was the last day of treatment for 5-year-old Grace at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in December. She celebrated the milestone with family and friends, and of course, a cake. Photo courtesy of Bev Snaith

“It’s not easy to come to a new country, to a new treatment, and hand your child over,” said Snaith in November. “But from the moment we got here, I knew she would be OK.”

The first friend Grace made at the Proton Therapy Institute was Kim Ely, a child life specialist whose goal is to reduce fear and stress in both the child and the family.

“I was afraid that Grace would need general anesthetic for every treatment,” Snaith said. “With Kim here, Grace has a friend who helps her cope with everything. It’s been wonderful and a lot less stressful for both of us.”

The UF Health Proton Therapy Institute opened its doors in 2006, offering patients a promising alternative to traditional radiation with a lower risk of side effects, more precise treatment capabilities and an impressive success rate.

The treatment’s success rate is something the institute’s physicians and scientists keep a meticulous eye on through its clinical research program. Since its very first treatment eight and a half years ago, the institute has been dedicated to documenting the benefits of proton therapy.

“We think the advantages of proton therapy are going to be present in every application — pediatrics, brain tumors, head and neck cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, lung and pancreatic cancer, “ said Nancy Mendenhall, MD ’80, UF Health Proton Therapy Institute medical director. “The clinical research program is critical to our mission and will help pave the way for improved treatments and higher survival rates.”

Housing both conventional radiation and proton therapy, the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute is raising the bar for cancer care.

“We think the advantages of proton therapy are going to be present in every application.”
Nancy Mendenhall, MD ’80

“There are multiple levels to our overall patient care approach,” said Stuart Klein, executive director of the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute. “On one hand it is very scientific with high-tech equipment and highly trained staff. We also focus on the emotional aspects of our patients — presenting a holistic approach to both their cancer and to them as a total patient.”

The patients are responding to the institute’s method of care, with nearly 100 percent of former adult patients participating in the outcomes tracking protocol, and several returning throughout the year for a reunion lunch.

“I called it a radiation vacation,” said David Powell, a former patient who spearheaded an effort to raise funds to support the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute’s For the Children fund. The fund supports programs like the child life specialist position
that helped ease Grace’s fears and anxiety.

Today, Grace is home in England, back in school and riding ponies, her mother said in a recent email.

“She is well, and she is happy.”