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Women's Center debuts

High-tech Harrington facilty advances care

Women’s Center Clerk Michelle Anderson, seated, greets people coming to tour the refurbished center at Harrington Hospital Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
July 30, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — To Anne Mathieu, the technology at the centerpiece of the newly renovated Harrington Women's Center is light years better than the way things were.

She's seen most of that evolution, having been a mammographer for 45 years.

"We didn't have equipment that was specifically designed for mammograms," she said. "we had to use regular X-rays, but they come in two types — long and short rays — and you don't need long rays to look at breast tissue. We had to use industrial X-ray films that needed exposures of 12 seconds, so if the patient had cancer, we'd already started treatment [by just scanning it]."

If the patient didn't have the disease, repeated mammograms with such long exposures sometimes caused it, she added. In those days, if doctors found a lump, it had often been there for years and the cancer had already metastatized to other parts of the body.

Today, however, things like Harrington's digital mammography and regular testing are catching potential cancers much earlier. Pointing to one of her computer screens showing a breast scan, Mathieu said, "Once we find microcalcification, that's the beginning of cancer, but it could take seven years for that to develop into a lump."

That potential is something Webster's Passion Chilimba keeps close watch on, since her family has a cancer history. Doctors routinely recommend women get their first mammogram between ages 35 and 40, plus one annually after 40, and Chilimba said she started early.

"I'm very concerned whatever my mom has, I might end up getting," she said. "I try to keep on top of things. They're very good here, very thorough."

Joan Menard agreed, saying she used to drive all the way to Boston to get annual tests, but won't do that anymore.

Such advances and a lot of less technical changes were on display Thursday as part of an open house for the new first-floor center. Dozens of people, not surprisingly mostly women, toured the suite to see the ultrasound and mammography machines and uro-gynecology rooms while asking questions. Among other things, patients will find the bright area privacy-protecting, with interconnected dressing and testing rooms so they don't have to walk down hallways in johnnies.

"It's a different atmosphere, a little less busy and more calming," said desk clerk Michelle Anderson. "As always with a new facility, people are more impressed and pleasant. … They did a good job with the colors; it's a comfortable place."

Dr. Sam Zylstra agreed, noting his uro-gynecology services used to be "kind of crammed into one space" on the fourth floor, where his adult patients had to share waiting space with pediatric patients. "Comfortable" also applies to the procedures themselves, he added, noting treatments that used to require days of hospitalization and surgeries lasting four hours are now "much simpler and take a fraction of the time." His patients routinely leave the same day or next morning, he said.

Zylstra said he started at UMass in 1990, but now splits his time between Harrington and Milford Regional Medical Center in part because he finds the smaller hospitals more flexible.

"These kinds of places are on the cutting-edge of equipment," he said. "There are certain hoops you have to jump through in university hospitals … but the newest trials and procedures are often in clinical settings like Harrington."

He noted the hospital is one of 30 centers nationwide, and the only one in New England, participating in a five-year trial of the efficacy of drugs vs. a new "interstem" method of treating incontinence. To Zylstra, the latter seems better at least short-term, being "80 to 90 percent effective" while many patients on medication end up having to add drugs for effect or give them up entirely because of side effects.

Surgery Nurse Manager Linda Fortin said Zylstra's department has existed for years, but she often hears people say they have no idea it's here. To her, things are "leaps and bounds" ahead of the past in terms of women's care overall.

"I've seen the evolution from taking out women's ovaries, uterus and all of it" to more focused, less invasive treatment, Fortin said. Once, she said, recovery took eight weeks or more, but now two weeks is common.

As an example, she talked about the Essure procedure, a form of long-term contraception Harrington has been offering for about two years. It involves non-surgically inserting a short wire into the fallopian tubes, thus blocking the ability of an egg to reach and implant in the uterus without actually tying off those tubes. Fortin said she doesn't know if it's reversible because it's too new for enough data.

Center Director Kathy Franco-Anthony said the center treats about 9,000 women a year. It added a second mammography room last winter ahead of schedule because patients were waiting too long for appointments, and is planning to open another mammography site in Charlton in December or January.

Also, for those who can't afford mammograms due to lack of insurance, the VNA Care Network offers them free, plus pap tests, physicals and cardiovascular screening, for Massachusetts residents ages 40-64 (some women outside those ages may qualify, too). The program's funded by the Mass. Department of Public Health, and can be reached by calling 888-663-3688, ext. 1315, 1337 or 1340.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

See Monday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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