Florida Governor Rick Scott visited the Miller School’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center on Friday, March 14, to tout the $80 million earmarked for cancer treatment and research in his proposed $1.4 billion 2014 state budget, and to support Sylvester’s efforts to receive official designation from the National Cancer Institute.
The stakes are high: Sylvester could receive one-third of the $60 million allocated in the budget for cancer treatment. The additional $20 million will fund research. Scott said the funding would have a halo effect on the state’s overall economy.
He played to a friendly crowd. “Florida has the second-highest number of cancer cases in the country, but only one NCI-designated cancer center,” said UM President Donna E. Shalala, referring to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. “Sylvester will be the second. In order to propel Sylvester to the next level, we need critical state support. The Governor understands this, and he knows that enhancing cancer research is the right thing to do for the people of our state.”
Scott saw additional geographic benefits. “Sylvester is important because it is South Florida’s only academically based cancer center,” he said. “We are competing with other cancer centers around the world. I want Florida to be No. 1.”
Moreover, he described it as a healthy investment in Florida’s turned-around economy. “We’re going to help families all across the state, and we’re going to create jobs,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also the smart thing to do.”
Scott had a perfect example standing right beside him – 17-year-old Billy Thies of Fort Lauderdale, whose doctors had discovered a metastasized tumor in his leg two years earlier and referred him to Sylvester. A combination of aggressive chemotherapy and knee-replacement surgery, under the direction of oncologist John Goldberg, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics, and orthopaedic surgeon H. Thomas Temple, M.D., professor of orthopaedics and pathology, chief of the Oncology Division and director of the Tissue Bank, saved his life and returned him to high school, walking and cancer-free.
Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School and CEO of UHealth, gestured toward the large gathering of physicians and researchers present and thanked Scott for his support on behalf of “all of the champions in this room.” Additional funding, he said, would not only improve patient outcomes but also attract additional top talent, such as Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., who came to the Miller School from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York two years ago.
Nimer, in turn, credited the translation of critical research breakthroughs into life-saving treatments with better outcomes overall than the national averages for common cancers. He also touted Sylvester’s growing number of physicians and scientists, and also of patients – including a more than doubling of patients in the adult stem cell transplant program – in the two years since his arrival. “With Governor Scott in our corner, we will be able to build programs and make more life-saving discoveries as we advance toward our goal of gaining NCI designation.”
Scott was then presented with his own white coat as a special souvenir of his visit. “It’s a white coat for a white knight,” said Shalala, to applause from the entire room.
Earlier, Scott had paid a visit to alex’s place, Sylvester’s pediatric hematology-oncology outpatient clinic. As the father of two and grandfather of three walked through the foyer, shaking hands, rubbing heads and patting shoulders, he occasionally bent over or crouched down to put himself at eye level for brief conversations with even the smallest of the children, a few of whom wore masks to shield their fragile immune systems from airborne germs.
“You’re fighting hard,” he said to one. “Good for you.”
To another: “Is this your grandma? She must be proud of you.”
To a third, he joked: “I bet you’re 15.” The little girl stretched her arms toward the floor, hands balled into fists, and announced proudly, “No, I’m 4!”
As a group shot was taken, Scott coached the kids on how to pose for the camera. “You have to pull your chin in,” he advised them.
Shalala couldn’t resist the kids’ charms either. “Give me a smile,” she said to one, “and I’ll give you a scholarship.”
An older boy named Francisco, all of 13, later said he and Scott had talked sports. “He didn’t like that I’m a Lakers fan,” the boy reported, then added with a smile, “but I am a fan of the Heat cheerleaders.”