Sarah’s Story: Why Exceptional Care Matters

Sarah Hadden was in Spanish class when the pain started, severe abdominal pain that continued to grow worse. Soon, the 20-year-old Biola University student was looking for a ride to the hospital.

A friend drove her to the Emergency Department at St. Jude Medical Center, where a CT scan revealed a large mass on her pancreas. The tumor’s size and position earned an additional note in Sarah’s chart: “probable carcinoma.” She was admitted to the hospital and scheduled for a biopsy.

While Sarah’s age made a pancreatic mass unusual, in many ways, this is a scene that repeats itself every day at St. Jude: a newly admitted patient facing a life-threatening illness. The care Sarah received over the next several days was filled with moments that routinely take place in every department and unit — yet her story also highlights just how unique that care is.

Shortly after her hospital admission, Sajen Mathews, MD, a board-certified SJHMG gastroenterologist, entered her room and Sarah greeted him with one question: “What’s my life expectancy?” With her parents arranging plane flights from Michigan, Sarah was alone — and after searching the internet on her phone, she knew pancreatic cancer survival is often measured in months, not years. “There couldn’t have been a kinder doctor to walk through the door,” says Sarah. “He was exactly the right person to offer the information, compassion and reassurance I needed.”

But Sarah’s care would include not only physicians who could make her “smile just by walking into the room,” but also, she explains, some “very cool” nurses.

There was the nurse who noticed how tired Sarah’s parents looked and purchased sandwiches and snacks from the cafeteria — with her own money — and delivered them to Sarah’s room. And the nurse who kept Sarah engaged and occupied before her parents arrived: “She was in and out of my room constantly, chatting, making me laugh — like a very good friend.” Sarah also remembers the nurse who prayed with her when she needed it most: “It was the nicest thing anyone could have done.”

The biopsy of Sarah’s mass was obtained by endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) — and this is where the story shifts to another common scene at St. Jude: state-of-the-art technology that simply isn’t available at most hospitals. The procedure was performed by Phuong Nguyen, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist who has a unique expertise in EUS. “There are a very small number of hospitals in Southern California who offer the breadth and sophistication of St. Jude’s gastroenterology services,” says Dr. Mathews, chief of staff elect, explaining the hospital’s list of diagnostic and surgical services is typically only found at large academic hospitals.

With the biopsy came wonderful news: the tumor was not an adenocarcinoma. Dr. Mathews asked if Sarah’s mother and father would like to take her back to Michigan for the surgery. Sarah was stable for travel and going home would prevent the expense and inconvenience of staying in Southern California for possibly weeks. The answer was a firm no. “From the moment we walked into this hospital, we recognized how special it is,” explains Diane Hadden, Sarah’s mother. “It is so clear to us that we have literally the best care right here.”

Pancreatic surgery, even for non-malignant tumors, is complex. yet, among St. Jude’s medical staff are two of the nation’s most-respected pancreatic and hepatobiliary surgeons: Marie Stapfer, MD, and Robert Selby, MD. Dr. Selby is a Professor of Surgery at the USC School of Medicine, as well as Director of the Liver Transplantation Program and Chief of the Division of Hepatobiliary and Pancreas Surgery. Dr. Stapfer is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Surgery, Division of Hepatobiliary Surgery and Abdominal Organ Transplantation, Keck School of Medicine of USC.

A St. Jude surgical team, led by Dr. Selby, saw Sarah through the three-hour procedure, in which only a small fraction of her pancreas was removed — one of the benefits of having a surgeon who consistently creates some of the nation’s best outcomes. After a problem-free recovery and great prognosis, Sarah stepped back into her life as a college student pursuing a cinema and media management major with dreams of one day working on the Tonight Show.

Sarah says she’s not sure why God had her go through this, but she saw His care every day — often wearing lab coats and scrubs. “Through some amazing nurses, top-rated surgeons, and physicians with unbelievably kind eyes, God used St. Jude to ensure I had the best possible care.”

For Dr. Mathews, Sarah’s hospital stay is a reminder of why he loves practicing medicine here. “Her care had all the elements that make St. Jude unique: the expertise, the advanced technology, and the genuine compassion,” he explains. “St. Jude is filled with nurses and physicians who exemplify the very best of their profession, allowing us to make the exceptional an everyday occurrence.”

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