Patient philanthropy bolsters innovative program focused on improving quality of life

“There are no inoperable tumors, only unacceptable consequences of surgery.”

Hal Jacobson, M.D., a former radiation oncologist at University of Florida Health and a 1980 UF College of Medicine alumnus, shared this unexpected statement, which he’d heard from one of his professors while a student at UF. The point Jacobson’s professor was trying to make was that surgical treatments do not happen in a vacuum; post-surgical quality of life must also be considered.

Jacobson understood this idea all too well. After going through multiple instances of skin cancer — which visibly affected areas of his face — and being told repeatedly that invasive surgical removal was his best option, Jacobson was relieved to meet Peter Dziegielewski, M.D., an associate professor and chief of head and neck oncologic and microvascular reconstructive surgery at UF Health.

Dziegielewski, known to his patients and colleagues as “Dr. Dz,” provided a different perspective when addressing Jacobson’s treatment options. Taking into account what happens to patients after surgery, Dziegielewski had long focused his clinical research on optimizing patients’ functional outcomes following head and neck surgery.

“Dr. Dziegielewski’s willingness to address the consequences of surgery as a measure of success was refreshing, and that information is vital to patients who are making treatment decisions that will have long-term effects,” Jacobson said.

Peter Dziegielewski, M.D., associate professor and chief of head and neck oncologic and microvascular reconstructive surgery

Grateful for the positive outcome of his treatment and the measured approach of Dziegielewski and his team, Jacobson began to ask about ways he could support Dziegielewski and his team through philanthropic giving. Dziegielewski shared his desire to develop a program to help patients whose lives had been adversely affected by head and neck surgery to regain quality of life beyond their surgery.

“Head and neck cancer survivors can be given the relief of beating cancer through surgery but are often left coping with the aftermath of treatment,” Dziegielewski said. “Speech, swallowing, appearance and quality of life can all be dramatically impaired.”

In response to these post-surgical concerns, Dziegielewski is developing a program for post-surgical care to improve quality of life for patients after head and neck cancer treatment.

“Patients are often left alone to struggle with their ‘new normal'”.

Peter Dziegielewski, M.D.

“The UF Head and Neck Cancer Functional Outcomes Program aims to improve patient recovery after cancer treatments,” Dziegielewski said. “We’re aiming for excellence in the treatment of head and neck cancer as well as the patient’s life beyond cancer.”

The goal of the program is to closely follow patients over time with measurements of their functionality post-surgery and institute interventions, including assistive therapeutic devices to improve tongue and jaw performance, as part of their recovery. Through coordinated communication with other clinics in the Head and Neck Research Network, the program at UF Health can help create a worldwide repository of data that brings patients closer to learn from their shared experiences and minimize feelings of isolation.

Inspired by Dziegielewski’s vision for improving post-surgical quality of life for patients, Jacobson was moved to donate to the program.

“I can unequivocally vouch for the unique, superior results of Dr. Dziegielewski’s care,” Jacobson said. “It is a great honor to have the opportunity to help.”

As more of Dziegielewski’s patients have benefited from his care, more have stepped forward to support his work.

When Rex McPherson received a diagnosis of lymphoma in April 2021, it didn’t take long for him to decide where he would go for treatment. A lifelong resident of Orlando, McPherson had already been traveling to UF Health in Gainesville for years. After he experienced a prolonged period of throat pain years earlier, Catherine Edwards, M.D., an associate professor of endocrinology at the UF College of Medicine, was able to finally diagnose and treat McPherson for an autoimmune disorder that can cause hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid.

“I walked into Dr. Edwards’ office for the first time to see her and she nailed it,” McPherson said. “It was Hashimoto’s disease, and she instructed me to take Advil daily. It was that simple. She told me she understood what a long drive it was to come from Orlando to Gainesville. I told her this was the shortest drive in the world to have her do what she did for me.”

Thanks to regularly scheduled follow-up visits and ultrasounds with Edwards, and later Naykky Singh Ospina, M.D., a clinical associate professor of endocrinology at the UF College of Medicine, the team detected McPherson’s lymphoma in its early stages.

“I had an appointment with Dr. Singh Ospina, who gave me the results of the biopsy,” McPherson said. “She confirmed it was cancer, which nobody wants to hear. But here’s where the good part starts. She was ready with the bios of several ENT surgeons. I called her the next day to say I wanted to keep my care at UF Health, and I chose Dr. Dziegielewski. As soon as I met Dr. Dz, I knew I’d come to the right place. He was reassuring and felt confident that the cancer could be removed cleanly.”

Rex and Jan McPherson

McPherson’s surgery was quickly scheduled for May 5, when Dziegielewski and his team successfully removed the cancer in his throat. As McPherson continued to visit UF Health for his postoperative care, Dziegielewski began to share anonymous examples of some of his other patients whose experiences were not as smooth as McPherson’s. Dziegielewski explained that he was developing a program for post-surgical care to improve these patients’ quality of life.

After speaking with Dziegielewski, McPherson and his wife, Jan, decided to contribute to the program as well, creating the Rex and Jan McPherson Endowed Fund for Innovation in Head and Neck Oncology to support the work of Dziegielewski and his team.

“The idea intrigued us and we both felt good about the opportunity to contribute to Dz’s work,” McPherson said. “I’ve had the extreme privilege of being able to come to UF Health to receive world-class care. Jan and I are happy to be able to provide a gift that can benefit Dr. Dz and the work he’s doing for patients.”

Dziegielewski expressed his deep appreciation for the gifts from Jacobson and the McPhersons, which are currently supporting dedicated staff who are building out the program.

“The gifts we have received from donors like Dr. Jacobson and the McPhersons are making this dream a reality,” Dziegielewski said. “We plan to build a functional outcomes lab and are putting together a team to follow our patients and measure their progress. There are many moving parts to coordinate, but we are moving forward. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, the journey has begun.”

To support Dr. Dziegielewski’s important work, contribute to the Rex and Jan McPherson Endowed Fund for Innovation in Head and Neck Oncology at the link below.

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Rex and Jan McPherson Endowed Fund for Innovation in Head and Neck Oncology