Story by Sarah Ruppenthal | Photography by Jose Morales
When Maui realtor Alan Craig bumps into Dr. Bobby Baker around town, he unabashedly kisses him on the forehead and says, “Thank you for saving my life.”
Nine years ago, Alan was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Once he absorbed the reality of the situation, it was time to explore his options — which led him to Dr. Baker, a radiation oncologist and the president and medical director of the Pacific Cancer Institute of Maui.
“I knew I didn’t want to go to O‘ahu or the Mainland to be treated,” Alan recalls. “And I found out that I didn’t need to, because we have the best treatment in the world right here on Maui.”
Located adjacent to the Maui Memorial Medical Center in Wailuku, the Pacific Cancer Institute offers radiation therapy and radiosurgery for a range of cancers, its staff working hand in hand with the medical oncologists who administer chemotherapy next door.
That’s not the situation Dr. Baker encountered when he came to Maui for a medical meeting in 1988. The Kentucky native was shocked to discover that the island had no community cancer center; that patients had to fly to Honolulu — or, in some cases, to the Mainland — for radiation treatments.
“I was surprised to find that Hilo was the only neighbor-island community that had a radiation center at the time,” recalls Dr. Baker. After some digging, he learned that the state-run hospital system saw no need for a treatment facility on Maui — that is, until he presented them with the hard facts.
One in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in his or her lifetime, says Dr. Baker. One in six will need radiation. And while research and technology have made giant strides, for cancer patients, “being able to sleep in their own bed at night and to stay close to family and friends [is] a significant part of the healing process.”
Before the institute opened, twenty years ago, cancer patients on Maui had two treatment options: The first was to pack a bag, board a flight bound for Honolulu, and live in a hotel for six to eight weeks. The second was to fly round-trip from Maui to O‘ahu each day for a fifteen- to twenty-minute radiation session. Medical insurance rarely covered the costs of transportation and lodging.
Needless to say, either option was emotionally, physically and financially taxing for patients and their families.
“I’m sure that some families just couldn’t afford it and gave up, while others scrimped on necessities like utilities and groceries to make it happen,” says Dr. Baker. “Having our facility here on Maui probably saves the community millions of dollars each year.”
Today the institute boasts a comprehensive staff of board-certified radiation and medical oncologists, oncology nurses, radiation therapists, and even a nuclear physicist who calibrates each patient’s radiation dose.
Dr. Baker was a chemical engineer before switching to medicine. “I chose radiation oncology as my specialty, because I wanted to help people,” he says, “but also because I love computers, physics and cool toys — and the coolest toys are the ones that can kill cancer.”
Last year, the institute added the TrueBeam STx to its arsenal of cutting-edge equipment, becoming the first and only cancer treatment center in the state to offer stereotactic body radiation therapy with respiratory gating.
In layman’s terms? This machine can treat tumors that are literally moving targets.
In the past, radiation oncologists faced the formidable challenge of treating small, evasive tumors — typically in the lungs or liver — that would move with the patient’s every breath. The TrueBeam STx uses real-time imaging tools to track the tumor’s movement and deliver radiation with speed and precision, reducing exposure to the surrounding healthy tissue.
This revolutionary technology gives patients fast, noninvasive treatment options for some of the most challenging tumors occurring in the brain, spine, lung, liver and prostate. “It’s not just the best technology in the state,” says Dr. Baker. “It’s the best in the world.”
The institute treats up to thirty-five patients each day, with the average radiation session taking fifteen to twenty minutes. It may be a short visit, but that doesn’t stop patients from bonding with staff members. Over a course of approximately forty treatments that can last from six to eight weeks, patients genuinely experience the staff’s core philosophy: “high technology, human touch.”
For patients like Alan Craig, the real appeal of the institute is its compassionate and dedicated professionals. “They see you under the worst of conditions, but manage to put you at ease,” he says. “They don’t treat you like a patient; they treat you like a person.”