Hilda Vargas (left) and Carmen Dross (right) of Bridgeport discuss the day's events while waiting for treatment.
Sisters Hilda Vargas and Carmen Dross are close.
"I can read her like a book," said Dross. Because of this close relationship with her 69-year-old sister, she knew something was wrong.
"I saw the pain in her face. I knew she wasn't feeling well, but she said she was fine," said Dross.
Vargas's back pain and weight loss led to a visit with her primary care doctor and an ultrasound. The ultrasound showed a mass on her liver. More testing followed.
On June 22, 2015, Vargas was diagnosed with liver cancer and referred to a medical oncologist with Smilow Cancer Hospital, Neal Fischbach, MD. She began receiving treatment at Yale New Haven Health's newest full-service outpatient facility, Park Avenue Medical Center, when it opened in May 2016.
Dross still looks out for her older sister. She picks up Vargas at her house in Bridgeport and drives the 15 minutes down Park Avenue to the new building in Trumbull. She runs to get Vargas coffee, Ritz crackers and juice from the center's patient nutrition area. She grabs a blanket if Vargas feels cold.
"She feels comfortable here," said Dross. Vargas explained, through a medical interpreter, that she has been receiving Smilow Cancer Hospital outpatient treatments at Park Avenue Medical Center since its opening and has been very satisfied. "I feel good from the moment I walk in, to the moment I walk out of the building. I like that I can see my doctors, get a scan and get treatment all in one place."
Smilow Cancer Hospital at Park Avenue Medical Center
The patient waiting area in Smilow Cancer Hospital overlooks the Norma Pfriem Healing Garden.
It is not just new construction. Park Avenue Medical Center represents a new model for treating patients and their families. The building has a light and airy quality to it, with open expanses, comfortable seating areas and themed artwork on each floor. It doesn't feel like a hospital, and that's the point.
Input from Smilow Cancer Hospital physicians and staff was taken into account for the oncology area, where Vargas receives her treatment. For example, multiple kinds of seating are available for chemotherapy infusion. There are private bays for patients who want to be alone, and an open area for patients who want to socialize.
"Some patients prefer the open area," said Nicole St. Onge, RN, BSN, assistant patient services manager. "There they can lean on each other for support."
Lisa Shomsky, RN, MBA, clinical program director of Smilow's ambulatory oncology programs, likes the added benefit of the outside pergolas in the Norma Pfriem Healing Garden. "Patients can choose to sit in the outside bays to receive their infusions since the garden is accessible from the treatment area. It is absolutely beautiful."
Vargas chose one of the private bays for her chemotherapy. She received her treatment in a cushioned infusion chair, while watching her own television and looking out on the Healing Garden. "The garden is so pretty," said Vargas.
Along with the beauty of the garden, other amenities center around patient care and comfort. Massage therapists from Integrative Services will come to the oncology suite to provide a chair massage to patients and their caregivers if desired. In the Integrative Services suite, located on the first floor, patients can participate in health services that encourage complete wellness.
"Providers offer yoga, Pilates, acupuncture and nutrition counseling in such a beautiful setting. It helps patients feel more in control," said Donna Twist, PhD, executive director, Norma Pfriem Breast Center and vice president, Development, Bridgeport Hospital Foundation.
"We have all the services here one would ever want to manage cancer," said Mary Pronovost, MD, medical director of Smilow Cancer Hospital programs at Park Avenue Medical Center. "Patients can be evaluated here, walk next door for imaging and go upstairs for their surgery.
If they need chemotherapy, they can meet with oncologists downstairs, or go across the hall for radiation. It is a total coordination of care under one roof."
Theresa Bulan of Trumbull reads in one of the many seating areas throughout the facility.
Radiation oncology is offered on the garden level, across from the oncology suite.
Theresa Bulan completed her radiation treatments there in July. Because she didn't know her family medical history, she opted to begin getting mammograms at 31. A follow-up mammogram at 48 led to an incidental finding of her tumor. A diagnosis of stage 1A breast cancer on Jan. 21, 2016, came after a biopsy performed by Dr. Pronovost. After receiving chemotherapy and surgery at other locations, she started the 10-minute drive to the Park Avenue facility from her Trumbull home for radiation in June.
"I sat down with Dr. [Bruce] McGibbon in radiation oncology and set up my four-week radiation schedule," said Bulan. "Everyone was so wonderful and accommodating."
"We have seen nice synergies here that you may not see at other centers," said Bruce McGibbon, MD, radiation oncologist. "Breast cancer is a multi-disciplinary approach, with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation oncology. This facility makes it easier to collaborate with other physicians."
"We are Smilow Cancer Hospital here in Trumbull," said Shomsky. "You don't have to travel to get your treatment. It is very convenient for patients and families in Fairfield County." Bulan received four weeks of radiation at Park Avenue.
During her regimen, she continued taking ballroom dancing lessons at the Fred Astaire studio in Trumbull. "My husband and I danced through the whole thing," said Bulan.
For the next five years, she will take medications and receive mammograms coordinated by Dr. Pronovost and the Smilow team at Park Avenue Medical Center.
"Dr. Pronovost is a godsend," said Bulan. "She is so patient and kind, which is really comforting. Everyone at Park Avenue has been like that. I have a positive spirit too and am learning to take one step at a time."
Bruce McGibbon, MD, discusses treatment options with a patient.
Surgery and gastroenterology services
Another feature of Park Avenue Medical Center is the design of the surgical and gastroenterology suites on floor 3. This level was designed for patients' comfort and privacy.
With easy access from the parking garage bridge, patients and families can walk into the waiting room and relax overlooking the garden. After checking in, patients are ushered into a spacious locker room and private dressing area to prepare for their procedure. Twenty pre- and postop bays offer different levels of privacy.
Colonoscopies and endoscopies are performed in the gastroenterology suites. Outpatient procedures ranging from hernia repairs to breast cancer surgery are done in the surgery suites.
Trumbull resident Gary Tantimonico had a hernia repair performed by Andrew Kenler, MD, breast and general surgeon with Northeast Medical Group, in May. "I have had surgery at a couple other places, and it was like night and day. This facility is new, clean and state-of-the-art.
The atmosphere was refreshing and felt cozier. It did not seem like I was at a hospital," said Tantimonico.
Following a procedure, patients are brought to a consultation room where discussion about diagnosis and education can take place. A private hallway leads back to the parking garage.
Bruce McGibbon, MD, discusses treatment options with a patient. Along with the design and flow of the building, Yale New Haven Health System wanted to bring new services to Fairfield County.
Waj Mehal, MD, associate professor of Medicine (digestive diseases) with Yale School of Medicine, is one of the few hepatologists in Fairfield County and practices at Park Avenue Medical Center.
"For patients with hepatitis C, fatty liver disease or other liver ailments, evaluation and/or treatment is now available closer to home, with easy access from the Merritt Parkway," said Caroline Loeser, MD, chief of Gastroenterology at Bridgeport Hospital.
In addition, Dr. Mehal is teaming with interventional radiologists, surgical oncologists and surgeons for treatment of other liver diseases at Park Avenue. "Patients have been thrilled with the synergy of these services," said Dr. Loeser.
New model, unique feel for outpatient care Along with the blend of services and new design of Park Avenue, patients and families have noted a unique atmosphere in the building. This difference starts at the front door.
Upon entering the building, patients, caregivers and families are greeted by a bilingual patient experience concierge who offers a warm welcome and can direct patients, confirm an appointment time, open the door, help them get in and out of a car, and even meet a patient with a wheelchair.
"The concierge brings a special human touch," said Daniel Walsh, the center's site director and director of Patient Experience at Bridgeport Hospital. "We really wanted that personal connection with our patients when they enter Park Avenue."
Concierge Victor Vilar is ready to greet patients and families.
Victor Vilar serves as one of the concierges at the center.
He moved to Park Avenue in May aft er almost 30 years of assisting patients and caregivers at Bridgeport Hospital.
"Our role has a big impact on patients," Vilar said. "I really like what I do here, and patients really appreciate the smiling face and hugs."
"When I first came to Park Avenue, I was scared and nervous," said Bulan. "Victor walked me down to Dr. Pronovost's office. He was smiling and happy, and it was wonderful. It made it easier to walk through the door."
"Patients compare Park Avenue to other places they've been and comment on the differences," said Dr. Kenler. "There is also a certain serenity to the building. It is very obvious to me, but patients and families notice too."
"Patients just adore this facility and are impressed by the flow between areas and the comfort that is provided to them," said Nabil Atweh, MD, Bridgeport Hospital Chairman of Surgery. "The quality here is top notch. The way services are put together in such a comprehensive way makes this place very special."
Vargas agrees. "I like how the nurses treat me here, I like the treatment. That is why I chose this place. And that is why I stay here," said Vargas.
For more information on Park Avenue Medical Center, visit yalenewhavenhealth.org/parkavenue.
Much of Park Avenue Medical Center overlooks its tranquil grounds, cascading waterfall and seasonal plantings. Meant to be a therapeutic place of peace and serenity, oncology patients can sit under a private pergola and take in the beauty of the garden while receiving an infusion.
Patients on the third floor can look down at the beautiful garden for a moment of reflection and healing. Family members can use the area when waiting for their loved one to complete their testing, treatment or surgical procedure.