Cancer | Community | Health News

By The Virginia Pilot

NAGS HEAD — About a decade ago, the Outer Banks community suffered higher cancer mortality rates than the state and nation. Not only has that trend reversed, but now for the first time, local cancer patients can receive all their services under one roof.

Over 275 people attended the ribbon-cutting and open house on Jan. 24 for the Carol S. and Edward D. Cowell, Jr. Cancer Center. Located at 4927 S. Croatan Highway in Nags Head, it opens its doors to patients on Jan. 29.

“In 2012, Outer Banks Health didn’t have a cancer services program at all, and we were trailing the state and we were trailing the nation when it came to cancer mortality for all cancers…and we wanted to change that dynamic,” Ronnie Sloan, president of Outer Banks Health, said during brief event remarks.

Members of Outer Banks Health leadership and Cancer Services team look on as lead donor Carol Cowell cuts the ribbon for the opening of the Outer Banks Health Carol S. and Edward D. Cowell, Jr. Cancer Center.
Members of Outer Banks Health leadership and Cancer Services team look on as lead donor Carol Cowell cuts the ribbon for the opening of the Outer Banks Health Carol S. and Edward D. Cowell, Jr. Cancer Center.

The Outer Banks’ cancer mortality rate was about 6% and 7% higher than the nation and the state, respectively, Sloan said in an interview at the event.

Now, local cancer mortality rates are 6-7% lower than the state and country. The 5-year mortality for breast cancer rate dropped 50% in recent years. Even as cancer mortality rates have steadily declined across the country, “we’ve outpaced that,” Sloan said.

Carol Cowell cut the ribbon at Wednesday’s event. She made the namesake donation to the Carol S. and Edward D. Cowell, Jr. Cancer Center in Nags Head in honor of her late husband and in appreciation of the local community.

Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Cowell said in an interview that she is a cancer survivor who received treatment in Elizabeth City in 2005. The Outer Banks didn’t offer cancer services then, but she was greatly impressed by “the community sense that you got” from local health care professionals and from the community at large.

Fundraising for the center was similarly a community effort.

“This has been just an amazing journey,” Tess Judge said during her event remarks. Judge is chair of the board of directors for Outer Banks Health and co-chaired the fundraising team with Cindy Thornsvard.

Judge said she lost her mother and a son-in-law to cancer, and her daughter-in-law is struggling with it now, “so cancer services and the wonderful team we have here is just so special not only to me but to many.”

Fundraising for the center began during COVID, and their original goal of $4 million was bumped up to $6 million as the costs of building supplies soared.

According to Sloan, nearly $6.5 million has been raised for the center.

“We did that because of all of you, and the tremendous support this community has given to this cancer center,” Judge said.

Stephanie Anderson, a community member who had lost people to cancer, hiked the entire Appalachian Trail last year and raised about $10,000 for the center in the process, said Jennifer Schwartzenberg, director of community outreach and development for Outer Banks Health.

The journey to the center

Outer Banks Health hired its first director of cancer services in 2012, said Sloan, who came aboard in mid-2011.

“In 2013, the board of trustees made a fantastic decision,” Sloan said during his public remarks. They chose to purchase the radiation therapy center that was closing about two miles north of the hospital.

“We didn’t want our community to have to drive two hours each way” for treatment, he said.

Dr. Charles Shelton, a radiation oncologist, began working at Outer Banks Health — then called The Outer Banks Hospital — in 2014, and he leads the cancer services team, Wendy Kelly, marketing director for Outer Banks Health, said in an email.

Shelton set a goal of creating and maintaining an accredited cancer program to reduce the high cancer mortality rate among residents of Dare and Currituck counties, Kelly said.

“It’s been a dream of this organization since 2015 to build a facility that would allow patients to receive the highest-quality, compassionate cancer care all under one roof right here on the Outer Banks,” Kelly said.

Supported by its two partners, ECU Health and Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, along with the generosity of the local community, “that dream is now a reality,” she said.

In 2016, the Commission on Cancer of The American College of Surgeons granted a “Three-Year Accreditation with a Commendation” to The Outer Banks Hospital, which the facility has “proudly maintained” since that time, according to Kelly.

“Additionally, we are one of only eight critical access hospitals in the nation with this accreditation, and the only one nationally to have an accredited breast care program,” she added.

Outer Banks Health is one of 20 critical access hospitals in North Carolina, which have 25 beds or fewer and receive cost-based reimbursement, according to the North Carolina Division of Health and Human Services website.

“Outer Banks Health is an approved Medicare and Medicaid provider and participates with most commercial insurance companies,” Kelly said.

Sloan said that the new “comprehensive center” allows them to offer the “best care possible.”

The entire cancer team can quickly make decisions about patients in consult with one another as “concerns pop up,” and having the dedicated center eliminates the need for patients to go from the first to second floor of the hospital for care, then across the busy bypass for radiation treatment, he said.

Kelly expressed gratitude for all the community support of the center, which included the over 275 people who attended the event on Wednesday.

In addition to Shelton, the cancer services team also includes a director, three radiation therapists, a radiation nurse, a genetics extender, a physicist, a dosimetrist, a licensed practical nurse, 11 registered nurses, a nurse navigator, a financial navigator, a lay navigator, a social worker, a practice manager and three front desk monitors, according to Kelly.

“Our search continues for a permanent medical oncologist, and in the interim Dr. Michael Spiritos, formerly of Duke Health, has agreed to serve in that capacity,” Kelly said in her email. “Additionally, Dr. John Barton serves as a medical oncologist at the center.”

“Congratulations Outer Banks Health on this much-needed and impressive expansion,” Robert DeFazio, chairman of the board of directors for the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, said during his event remarks.