Kimmel Cancer Center team is among inaugural recipients
(Photo: from left: Christine Hann, Russell Hales, Marilyn Holman, Matt Holman, Hanika Reyes Rodavia)

Despite being a scientist, Matt Holman was unsure of the best treatment plan and where to go to find it when his wife Marilyn was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in 2016. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like for the many patients and families who have no science or medical background.

“We had a lot of choices for where to go for treatment. I wanted to know what hospital had the best doctors and nurses and would provide the best care for my wife,” says Dr. Holman, a scientist at the FDA.

He did his research, and ultimately, he and Marilyn selected the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, where she was treated by lung cancer experts Christine Hann, a medical oncologist, Russell Hales, a radiation oncologist, Amy Vance, a nurse practitioner, and Hanika Reyes Rodavia, a clinical research nurse.

“We were extremely impressed with the care Marilyn received,” says Dr. Holman; so much so that they wanted to nominate the doctors and nurses for a patient care award.

“People would ask me, ‘Why do you drive all the way to Balitmore?’” says Marilyn, a Frederick resident. “I tell them, ‘Because they are the best.’”

Matt volunteered to take the lead on researching potential awards to find just the right one to acknowledge their Kimmel Cancer Center lung cancer team. The problem was, when he began to look, he could not find a single award that recognized stellar patient care.

His search turned up plenty of research awards but nothing for patient care. Thinking he must have overlooked something, he reached out to his staff and colleagues at the FDA, but much to his surprise, no one knew of an award for outstanding patient care. In the absence of an existing award, Marilyn and Matt decided to establish a new award.

They had two goals—one was to recognize and honor the Kimmel Cancer Center team who cared for Marilyn but primarily to help other lung cancer patients faced with the daunting challenge of choosing where to go for treatment. “We wanted to help others who were deciding where to take their loved ones,” he says. The Holmans wanted their award to serve as a guidepost for patients, helping direct them to compassionate and expert, multispecialty team-based care.

They where impressed with the depth of knowledge of their Kimmel Cancer Center care team. “They get every expert involved in the care of lung cancer around the table to develop treatment plans for each patient,” says Dr. Holman. “It’s easy to take that kind of specialty care for granted, but trust me, it doesn’t happen everywhere.” Dr. Holman experienced this with his uncle, who he recently directed to the Kimmel Cancer Center, when he recognized his uncle was not getting the same level of care for his lung cancer.

The Holmans were equally impressed with their care team’s willingness to discuss all of the options and share decision-making to come up with the best path forward.

“They were so compassionate, and although we knew Marilyn was one of many patients, it never felt that way. They treated her like an individual and were always willing to spend time answering questions and communicating complicated, scientific information in an easy-to-understand way,” says Dr. Holman.

“My wife means more to me than anyone, and we were dealing with lung cancer. I had a long list of questions,” says Dr. Holman. He recalls an appointment with Dr. Hales when he asked so many questions that Marilyn asked him to stop, worried they would annoy Dr. Hales. Far from annoyed, Dr. Hales looked at Marilyn and said, “It’s all right. You are making decisions about your health, and I want you to be sure,” recalls Dr. Holman.

Another time, a few days before Thanksgiving Marilyn was in the outpatient clinic for a three-day series of chemotherapy treatments. The day before Thanksgiving, she experienced some complications. “The clinic was closing, but our nurse practitioner Amy stayed with us, consulting with the necessary experts to get us the answers we needed,” says Dr. Holman.  “She stayed late and waited for all of the experts to look at the test results so she could give us plan to get us through the holiday weekend.”

To make their patient care award idea a reality, the Holmans decided to reach out to the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC), which supports research through young investigator awards. IASLC Foundation representatives agreed that a caregiver award was needed, and working with Marilyn and Matt, they established the IASLC Foundation Cancer Team Award. Marilyn, an artist and elementary school teacher, designed the award. Hann, Hales, Vance, and Rodavia were among the inaugural recipients.

“The truth is, if Drs. Hann and Hales, and all of the other doctors and nurses had not provided such exceptional patient care, this award would not exist,” says Dr. Holman.

Now, because of the Holmans’ persistence, patients, survivors and caregivers have a way to honor and recognize multispecialty lung cancer teams—experts in all areas of lung cancer treatment—that provide exceptional care. The international award helps the best of the best stand out among the many lung cancer providers and can help ease the burden for newly diagnosed patients around the world who are searching for the best lung cancer care.

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