Thoracic surgeon Nestor Villamizar saw the glaring need for a comprehensive mesothelioma program in bustling South Florida, even when he was 1,500 miles away in Boston.
He is filling that void today.
Villamizar joined the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2014, hoping to slow the stream of mesothelioma patients who are leaving Florida to seek treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
He has been a much-welcomed addition to the state. The early results are impressive.
“When I was working at the Brigham, we kept seeing more and more mesothelioma patients coming for surgery from Florida, and it always kind of amazed me. It’s very difficult for a patient and a family to make the commitment to do that. It’s not easy,” Villamizar told Asbestos.com. “So it just made sense for me to come here. Those patients won’t have to travel so far anymore.”
Villamizar brought some Boston flavor to South Florida, including the surgical skills and expertise he learned at Brigham and Women’s, the most acclaimed mesothelioma program in the U.S., built by renowned surgeon Dr. David Sugarbaker.
“We want to build that same kind of program here. That’s what we hope to replicate, the best of the best,” Villamizar said. “We want to offer the same great care, and let those in Florida stay closer to home.”
The Sylvester Cancer Center already had been handling a small number of mesothelioma cases, but Villamizar’s expertise in the aggressive and detailed pleurectomy/decortication surgery brought a new, broader vision. He has pulled together a multidisciplinary team for mesothelioma to compliment his surgical skill.
“To build a program like this, it’s not about one person. You need a real team in place to give these patients the specialized care they need with a disease as complex as this,” he said. “That’s what we’re putting together. It’s not about a great surgeon taking care of a patient. It’s about a great team, the total package.”
Dr. Raja Mudad, who joined Sylvester in 2013, is the medical oncologist working with the mesothelioma program today. Dr. Adrian Ishkanian, who came in 2012, handles the complex, postsurgery Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT). Dr. Dao Nguyen also is part of the surgical team.
“It’s a strong team we have here,” Ishkanian said. “To make it work, you need experts in all facets: A dedicated surgeon, a dedicated medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist all working closely together. You need nurses who really understand it. For something as rare and subspecialized as this [mesothelioma], you need a dedicated team treating it. We have that now.”
Mesothelioma survivor and Miami native Rolando L. is a recent patient of the cancer center. His last name is withheld to protect his privacy.
Rolando, 59, underwent the extensive chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatment regimen at the hospital. The pleurectomy/decortication surgery performed by Villamizar in March lasted more than 13 hours. That particular surgery was not done at Sylvester before Villamizar’s arrival.
“They did a great helluva job here saving my life,” said Rolando, who rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle across the country this fall to celebrate his recovery. “I don’t know much about hospitals in Boston or New York. I heard people say they are the best, but I found what I needed right here in Miami. God sent me to Dr. Villamizar and his team. I can’t imagine there is any place better.”
Sylvester, which opened in 1992, has organized its cancer treatment and research into site-disease groups, which included multidisciplinary teams that focus on specific cancer types. The groups range from the more common breast and lung cancer groups to the rarer cancers like pleural mesothelioma. Each group includes a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist and a surgeon.
“A lot of what we hope to do here goes back to what we did, what I learned in Boston.” Villamizar said. “My experience there was amazing. With this disease, you become so emotionally attached to these patients. We had patients who were told somewhere else there was nothing they could do [for this disease]. But they came to Boston, and we were seeing them 10 years after their surgery. That’s where I want us to be one day.”