Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine welcomed the State of Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, on February 5, giving him a tour of its cancer-fighting technologies. The cutting-edge tools he saw ranged from a truck-sized linear accelerator used for radiation therapy to bench-top robotic laboratory devices capable of analyzing hundreds of samples of microscopic human DNA strands a day in the search for lifesaving clues to better patient outcomes.
Patronis also met with representatives from more than a dozen of South Florida’s fire departments whose members are collaborating with Sylvester’s Firefighters Cancer Initiative, a state-funded program that was founded in 2015 to learn why first responders face a high risk of cancer and to find ways to improve their health and safety.
Since the program’s inception, Sylvester researchers have identified exposures that account for the increased cancer risk; developed new technology to measure exposure in the field; linked firefighters to the Florida Cancer Data System, a state-supported cancer data registry managed at Sylvester, for improved monitoring; and developed an education campaign to inform firefighters about prevention and early detection.
Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Sylvester’s director, welcomed Patronis and the firefighters.
“What we have done with state support over the years is recruit some of the very finest researchers in the world,” he said. “It is extremely gratifying to see how many people we bring together to address the cancer problem here. We also have been working on a number of efforts in the community, where we have the most diverse patient population of anywhere in the United States.”
Nimer made a point about patient care as a calling to service that was not lost on his audience.
“I have been a clinician for almost 39 years,” he said, “and I have always thought of myself as a public servant. We are all public servants here at Sylvester. If we forget that, we forget why we became doctors.”
Nimer was followed at the podium by Erin N. Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., senior associate dean for health disparities, who is also director and principal investigator of the Firefighters Cancer Initiative. She gave Patronis some background on the research, while indicating the importance of state support to continuing its positive impact.
“Our work couldn’t happen without collaboration with the state fire marshal’s office and the leadership of the firefighters throughout South Florida,” she said. “What we do is participatory research, where firefighters tell us the questions to ask and then we put the science to those questions to shape hypotheses that we believe will lead to meaningful change.
“This is now our third year of funding from the state, another appropriation that will allow us to further understand what it is about being a firefighter that drives an increased risk of developing and dying of cancer. The investment that the state has made is tremendous, because we are at the forefront of what is happening internationally in this new conversation about firefighters and cancer, and the work we are doing is filling very important gaps in knowledge. We’re not just doing research and publishing it in journals that only scientists and other clinicians read. Our research is leading to policy and practice change.”
Their remarks were followed by a tour of selected clinical facilities led by Alan Pollack, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, and Richard Fitterer, executive director of radiation therapy. From there, the group walked across campus to view a busy research laboratory in the Oncogenomics Shared Resource facility. There, Sion Williams, Ph.D., research assistant professor of neurology and director of the facility, told the visitors about how its work with DNA leads to precision medicine therapies that are changing the nature of cancer treatments.
The tour completed, Patronis had his own turn at the podium.
“It gives me chills to know that we can make a difference, that Miami can make a difference,” he said, picking up a helmet inscribed with the names of firefighters lost to cancer. “We have to continue the work. If we want the men and women on this helmet to be remembered, we all have to work on it together.”
“We’re glad to have an opportunity for you to see what we do every day,” said Nimer. “Together we have been able to do things that are unique in the United States and really have an impact.”
That impact was demonstrated in a very emotional way by the final speaker to step to the microphone — Sam Eaton, a retired Broward Fire Rescue firefighter and cancer survivor whose arm, and life, were saved at Sylvester.
“After 27 years in the fire service — I retired in 2007 — I thought I had it all behind me,” he said. “Then when I developed sarcoma in my arm, well, scared isn’t even the word for it. I was always helping people, and now I was the one who needed help. But these people at Sylvester know just what to do, and I’m a walking, talking example of it. The initial prognosis was that I was going to lose my arm.”
Firefighters have to pass rigorous tests of physical strength to be hired, and every one of them in the audience understood the fear Eaton had felt.
“Well, I’ve got news for you,” he continued, triumphantly. “I’m here, and it’s still on!”
To cheers and clapping, Eaton raised his arm and flexed his bicep for the crowd, a big smile on his face despite the tears in his eyes. The message for Patronis to take back to Tallahassee was clear: The greatest return on the state’s investment in the Firefighters Cancer Initiative is hope.