Aug. 16, 2018 | “My primary care physician called me in and asked me if I knew a good oncologist,” said Eric Ruschky, 70, of Columbia, South Carolina.
Ruschky recently recounted his 2003 diagnosis of smoldering multiple myeloma, a precancerous form of the cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow. “Turns out, I knew a brilliant one who lived down the street from me.”
Ruschky, now a retired assistant U.S. attorney, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in August 2004 and that fall, his oncologist William M. Butler, M.D., scheduled an appointment for him at the Myeloma Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) where he’s been a patient ever since.
“He told me, ‘You have an appointment with Dr. Tricot there in three days.’ That was on a Friday and by Wednesday, we were in Little Rock.”
During his first year of treatment under the care of Guido Tricot, M.D., Ph.D., Ruschky underwent chemotherapy treatments and had tandem stem-cell transplants. Tricot practiced at the UAMS Myeloma Center from 2001 to 2007, during which time he and his colleagues pioneered the use of a treatment technique that increased the median survival rate for newly diagnosed patients from 2 ½ years to 10 or more.
During his first round of chemotherapy, Ruschky almost, but not quite, dodged losing his hair.
“I had my treatment and was doing well but none of my hair had fallen out,” he said. “I began to think ‘Maybe that’s not going to happen to me.’” Heading home to South Carolina, he made it to about Alabama where it started coming out in the shower the next morning.
Arriving home, it was time for him to go shopping for a new vehicle.
“I went to my friend who owned a car dealership and told him, ‘If you don’t give me a good deal on a new car, I’m going to pull all my hair out,’ and grabbed a handful of hair in each of my hands.”
“I pulled out two fistfuls of hair,” he said.
“And I cried,” added his wife, Mary.
“To me, the loss of hair is a badge of courage. I wasn’t ashamed of being bald,” he said. “I’ve encountered other cancer patients with a bald head and when I do, I tell them ‘Been there, done that’ and give them a fist bump. It’s a bond I have with them.”
Ruschky has retained the sense of humor he first displayed at the car dealership and further encouraged when, back in Little Rock for his second round of chemotherapy, a friend from home sent him an outlandish wig.
“I think it’s supposed to be Rod Stewart or Tina Turner,” said Ruschky of the spiky reddish-golden wig, adding that he sports it on his annual visits to UAMS. Through the years, gift shop employees helped him embellish his look, adding accessories like a feather boa or a pair of sunglasses.
Visiting Scotland in 2009, he came across a second wig he brings with him for variety.
Meanwhile, Mary reaches out to those at the Myeloma Center who have cared for the couple through the homemade six-ingredient bread she’s been making for 30 years and brings with her every visit. The yeasty treat has become a popular tradition with employees.
During the times when her husband was undergoing treatment and their stays here were longer, she’d bring the starter with her and make it once a week to share with employees as a unique expression of gratitude.
Now that they visit just once a year and for a shorter time, she bakes the bread at home and brings it with her.
“People at the Myeloma Center have gone out of their way to make our visits there as pleasant as possible,” Ruschky said, adding that the same warm hospitality is also found among Arkansans outside of UAMS. Like John and Priscilla Youngblood of Little Rock, both originally from South Carolina, who opened their home to the Ruschkys during Eric’s checkups, even letting the Ruschkys stay in their home when the Youngbloods were out of town. The Youngbloods’ daughter, Sherri, is a registered nurse at UAMS.
Others extending hospitality to the Ruschkys include then-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet. The pair met the first couple at Huckabee’s book signing in Columbia, South Carolina, and struck up a friendship. Their conversation about Christmas decorations led to Janet inviting the pair to stay at the Governor’s Mansion for several days in December 2005 when the Ruschkys returned to Little Rock for a checkup and took them up on their offer.
When Mary, an avid tennis player, needed to find a pro she could call on with little or no notice as an outlet during her time as a caregiver, Raul Bermudez understood. The couple first met the tennis pro in 2004 and he has been a friend ever since.
“He’s just another part of Little Rock,” said Ruschky. “So many of the people we’ve met here care about us. The love, compassion and friendship we’ve found here has been amazing.”
Eric’s treatments ended in July 2005, followed by a year of maintenance chemotherapy administered in Columbia. Today, Eric is in near-complete remission and no longer has any medicines prescribed for myeloma. And when he meets other myeloma patients, he recommends they come to UAMS for treatment.
Aug. 13, 2018 | Kimberly Zimmer stretches her arms out in front of her and smiles. The 50-year-old is showing off how steady her hands are.
“Never in my life have I been able to hold my hands that still,” she said.
Zimmer had been diagnosed with essential tremor as a child. Fellow students bullied and poked fun at her for shaking. As she grew older, the condition progressed to the point that she was unable to hold a drink without spilling it. Eating was a challenge, too. Zimmer says she couldn’t keep food on a spoon long enough to reach her mouth.
“I became a recluse,” she said. “I didn’t want to go out to eat with my husband or friends because I didn’t want anyone to see me making a mess on the table like a child.”
Zimmer had tried all medications available on the market to help reduce her tremor. None of them seemed to make much difference. Her neurologist referred her to UAMS’ Rohit Dhall, M.D. to see if she was a candidate for a surgery called deep brain stimulation. Dhall is an associate professor of neurology in the UAMS College of Medicine and director of neurodegenerative disorders at UAMS.
“She was a fantastic candidate because she didn’t have memory issues,” Dhall said. “And her tremor was so severe that it was debilitating.”
Essential tremor is eight times more frequent than Parkinson’s disease. Dhall says most eligible candidates are unaware this treatment could be available to them. Only 3 percent of those who qualify get the surgery. But for most who do, the odds of improving are greater than 90 percent.
“He explained the procedure to me in great detail. I felt very hopeful and c
omfortable in our decision to move forward with the surgery.”
UAMS neurosurgeon Erika Peterson, M.D., performed Zimmer’s surgery the day after Thanksgiving 2017.
During the operation, Peterson placed small electrodes into the areas of the brain that control movement. Patients are awake during the surgery because doctors say it’s the best way to reliably test if they’ve hit their intended target and to insure there won’t be side effects from the electrodes as the patient comes out of surgery.
“Dr. Peterson gave me a dry erase board before surgery,” Zimmer said. “She asked me to draw a square, a circle and a triangle and to sign my name. Of course you weren’t able to recognize any of it because it was just scribbles.”
Once the electrodes were placed, Dr. Peterson had Zimmer draw the same shapes and sign her name.
“They were as perfect as the day is long. It was the prettiest triangle, circle and square you have ever seen. I’d never written my name so pretty.”
No longer hesitant to eat in front of people, Zimmer enjoyed Christmas dinner with family.
“Not a crumb left on the table,” she said. “I could pick up my glass and drink normally. I felt like an adult again. I got my life back.”
Zimmer says the absence of the tremor has been life changing for her.
“I can sit and pay attention to my husband, carry on a conversation without feeling like I’m being watched. It’s been a blessing.”
Zimmer returns to the clinic once every 6-8 weeks for necessary adjustments.
Since opening the UAMS Tremor Clinic nearly two years ago, Dhall said, hundreds of patients have been treated.
Aug. 3, 2018 | For the past few months, Mack and Karen Farris have spent lots of quality time taking in sights. The Fort Smith couple has enjoyed sunsets on the beach, trips back to their hometown in Alabama, visiting friends and family in Mississippi and Georgia and boating with dolphins in Florida.
It is a refreshing outlet for the Farrises because they spent 18 months in a dark bedroom. Mack Farris’ vision had been severely damaged in a workplace accident in 2016. After multi-disciplinary care at the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Farris can now see well enough to work, drive, read and travel.
“In the last visit we had with Dr. [Christopher] Westfall he said, ‘I want you all to take a trip. And I want you to see things.’ So we went home. And that’s what we did. We saw things,” Karen Farris said.
On Aug. 12, 2016, there was a clogged drain in the warehouse at Mack Farris’ workplace. It was not an unusual event. It happened from time to time. And like he normally would, Farris used a drain cleaner product to clear the pipes. But on this particular Friday morning, the drain was more clogged than usual.
“I had my pressure washer,” Farris said. “And when I hit the drain with the pressure washer, the backflush splashed and came up under my safety glasses. It was a bad day.”
Farris says the fluid went through his nose and in his eyes, blinding him. The next thing he remembers is being in a trauma center in Fort Smith. They were just about to fly him via helicopter to Little Rock. But doctors warned the pressure change would not be good for his eyes.
“I’ve traveled from Fort Smith to Little Rock lots of times but that was the longest trip I’ve ever made.”
Mack Farris says he knew he was being well taken care of. He just couldn’t see anything.
“In the beginning, I knew that our world had changed forever,” Karen Farris said. “They told me that the likelihood of Mack seeing again was very small.”
The alkali burn caused Farris to lose vision completely in his left eye. The vision in his right eye was too fuzzy for him to function as a sighted person.
“One of the wonderful things about UAMS is that we have a team approach to all injuries and medical problems,” said Christopher Westfall, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine and director of the Jones Eye Institute. “We have specialists and sub-specialists all in one building for eye injuries. We see chemical injuries, but injuries as severe as Mr. Farris’ are relatively infrequent. But when it does happen, it’s important that we have a team of experts who can provide comprehensive care.”
In April 2017, Farris received a cornea transplant for his right eye.
Later, John Pemberton, D.O., associate professor of the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine, surgically repositioned Farris’ eyelids and the surface tissue to prevent further damage that could lead to infection and loss of the eyes. Pemberton says an alkali burn is generally more severe than an acid burn because it tends to burn longer.
“In some cases the eyelids continue to scar from six months to a year after the incident,” Pemberton said. “In order to prevent this, you have to reposition the lids so that it doesn’t cause more ocular injury.”
For his left eye, which shrunk and lost vision, Pemberton placed a thin prosthetic shell over the white of his eye, or the sclera. The scleral shell gave Farris’ face a more symmetrical balance.
While Farris was healing, the light bothered him. His family had covered his bedroom windows with garbage bags to block the sun. Karen Farris says their son Daniel, who was living in Fort Smith at the time, helped them a lot. They took advantage of grocery store pickups and meal kit services.
“We followed every item to the letter that Drs. Goyle, Pemberton Westfall and Brown put before us,” Karen Farris said. “If they said to rest, he rested. We really stayed in our bedroom for over a year, in the dark.”
While in their house, Farris says she and her husband would imagine places they would go when he healed and regained his sight.
“We’d dream of taking down the garbage bags and putting in French doors. We’d talk about taking trips,” Karen Farris said.
Before the accident, Mack Farris enjoyed outdoor activities and keeping up with his four grandchildren. Caden is 12, Cash and Kenadie are 11 and Isla is 2. His wife says he wasn’t as active when he couldn’t see. Daily phone conversations with his sister, Cindy Hall, in Alabama and babysitting Isla were some of the many things that kept his spirits up. Karen Farris said they laughed often and reminisced about good times over the 29-year marriage and raising three sons. Hall and her husband, Larry, even traveled from Eldridge, Alabama, to Little Rock and Fort Smith for every procedure and surgery. Sometimes, they’d come by just to lift their spirits.
“They were a huge support to us,” Karen Farris said.
Katie Brown, O.D., an optometric physician in the Jones Eye Institute, saw Farris for the first time in March 2018. She was set to fit him for a scleral contact lens in his right eye. Unlike most contact lenses, scleral contact lenses are firm and are able to hold a small reservoir of liquid. It covers the cornea and much of the sclera.
“These contacts help give the patient a new cornea,” Brown said. “He had a cornea transplant. And it was perfect. But sometimes the surface is still irregular and there are patients who need additional help to function and see.”
On the day of Farris’ appointment to get his scleral lens, he could hardly make out the big ‘E’ on the eye chart.
“I put the lens in and it happened to be close to the power he needed,” Brown said. “He instantly could see almost 20/20.”
Everyone in the exam room was emotional. It had been 586 days since Farris lost his vision. Karen Farris documented much of their journey and clinic visits with photos and video. She compiled a video montage that included images from his first day in the hospital until the day he received his contact. The video shows ophthalmic tech Leora Bibbs crying and embracing Farris. Karen Farris says off camera, “We love you too, Leora. We couldn’t have gone through this without you.” The montage includes photos of Mack Farris smiling and posing with Westfall, Brown and Pemberton.
“I lost it,” Brown said. “It was one of those special moments when you remember why you do what you do. This is why I’m here. To help people just like Mr. Farris.”
Karen and Mack Farris have taken down the garbage sacks in this bedroom. They now have French doors. Farris has returned to work, something many of his coworkers never expected to happen. He’s been reissued a driver’s license.
“He’s doing things again,” Karen Farris said. “He’s doing yardwork, planted a garden, watching baseball games, driving me crazy. He’s being the normal Mack and it’s great.”
July 31, 2018 | UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., was ready to talk business, and business looks good.
During a recent appearance on the Sunday morning television program Talk Business & Politics with Roby Brock, broadcast statewide, Patterson said UAMS is financially sound and positioned to expand and improve health care in the state. To see the interview, go to Talk Business & Politics.
“Our budget for the year that just began this month is balanced for the first time in at least four years,” he said. “I think it’s a conservative budget. I think there’s more upside than downside. We’ll be back in growth mode.”
Through its Center for Distance Health and its Regional Campuses, UAMS has been an innovator in telemedicine as it has also strengthened its presence statewide. Patterson envisions further expansion on that foundation.
“Digital health is going to be a big wave of the future,” Patterson said during his television interview. “We will be talking a lot about how UAMS will be part of bringing the state of Arkansas into the digital health era. Improving access, making sure people have the ability to see physicians without undue hardship.”
New technology also can help clinicians use their time even more efficiently. That includes even more UAMS physicians on even more new campuses in Arkansas cities and towns.
“We currently have eight regional campuses,” Patterson said. “I would like to see that number increase to about 12 or so over the next few years.”
UAMS has had a regional campus in northwest Arkansas for a decade, and the chancellor said he wants to take health care there to a higher level to keep pace with that region’s population growth and changing health care needs.
Patterson also said he wants to see the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute achieve National Cancer Institute designation and grow the UAMS stroke and trauma programs.
July 27, 2018 | Patients of the UAMS Myeloma Institute were recently wrapped in additional care and comfort, thanks to the nationwide Subaru Loves to Care initiative by the vehicle manufacturer in partnership with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Employees from the Subaru of Little Rock dealership and the Arkansas division of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) visited the institute June 27 with 80 throw blankets to share with myeloma patients in the eighth-floor clinic. This marks the second year the dealership and LLS visited UAMS and shared blankets to spread love, hope and warmth to cancer patients and their families.
The blankets were accompanied by more than 25 messages of support from the dealership’s employees and customers written on cards with printed borders stating “A message of hope – where love meets hope.”
Delivering the blankets to UAMS were LLS’ Bryan Turley and Subaru’s marketing director Cecil Turner and internet sales manager Corey Haydar.
After the event, the cards were left on display at the front desk and packet-pickup up area. One of the cards was from Will Jennings, a Subaru employee who wanted to attend the event but had a last-minute conflict. He wrote:
Keep your head up and your mind strong. The mind and your attitude controls everything. Our prayers are with you.
The distribution had special meaning for Jennings. The Hot Springs man, 43 and father of a 15-year-old daughter, is also a myeloma patient.
“Anytime you can do something for someone else it’s always a great thing,” he said later of the blanket distribution. “I was diagnosed about a year ago through bloodwork taken during a routine exam and I was sent to the Myeloma Institute.”
Diagnosed with low-risk myeloma, Jennings had three rounds of chemotherapy and two stem-cell transplants. He is in remission and on a maintenance treatment, taking a lower dose of chemotherapy one time a week for nine weeks.
“I was told this was the place to be and I fully believe that,” he said, adding that he is thankful for the treatment he’s received.
Myeloma patient Ed Tinsley, 65, and his wife, Meredith, were visiting the clinic when the blankets arrived. The New Mexico resident, who received his first stem-cell transplant in 2011 and is a patient of Frits van Rhee, M.D., Ph.D., was preparing for his second transplant the following day.
“I think these blankets are a wonderful thing,” Tinsley said.
Subaru and LLS brought the Subaru Loves to Care initiative to life at 498 Subaru retailers across the country, delivering nearly 40,000 blankets.
July 23, 2018 | Retired police chief David Flory, 59, and Rick Gautier, 66 play pickle ball together at the Village Church of Christ in Hot Springs Village.
The paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis is not the only thing they share.
They both recently had knee replacement surgery with Lowry Barnes, M.D., chair of the UAMS Department of Orthopaedics. Barnes is one of the region’s foremost joint replacement experts and is consistently named as one of the top orthopaedic surgeons in Arkansas.
The two friends had experienced knee problems for years.
“I knew I would ultimately have to have a knee replacement,” Flory said. “I’ve had five previous knee surgeries dating back to high school.” In September, he noticed his pain worsen significantly.
For Gautier, “I’ve had knee issues for a long time, but around last November it kept getting worse.” He got an MRI from his family doctor who recommended a knee replacement.
“He gave me the names of two surgeons,” Gautier said. “I chose Dr. Barnes.”
Flory said it was a quick decision for him as well to entrust his knee replacement to Barnes. “Everyone told me he is the best in the country.”
Both Gautier and Flory say they were up and moving the same day of surgery, discharged the following day, and seeing a physical therapist the day after that.
“You have to really push yourself through pain for a few weeks to get your mobility back,” Gautier said. “But after that if you keep up the exercises, it’s very good.”
Gautier started bowling seven weeks after surgery and played pickle ball at nine weeks. Eleven weeks after surgery, during a trip to Silver Dollar City, his fitness tracker says he took 14,000 steps and 27 flights of stairs.
Flory says within three weeks of the surgery he was back at his full capacity. He played tennis regularly before surgery, but decided he’d ease back into the game by starting with pickle ball because the movements are a little shorter.
“I wanted to test out my knee. I really expected I’d be a step slower or lose mobility and stability,” Flory said. “I did not. I’m back as good as I was but with no pain. It’s like I’ve never had a knee problem.”