For Ian Saddler-Dodrill, the stomach pains couldn't have come at a worse time. She wondered why suddenly she couldn't eat, why her weight kept dropping.
But she couldn't spend much time thinking about it. She was already overwhelmed, looking after her sick father, a lifelong smoker facing a double amputation due to vascular disease.
Strained emotionally by her caregiver role, her own diagnosis was almost too much to bear: Tumors were growing in her colon, liver and pancreas. She realized she would soon be tossed into a dizzying cyclone of tests, surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation ... and all the challenges that went with it. Where to start?
Then she met Jeanne.
“She's my 'mom' and the Biller Center is where I live!” exclaimed Saddler-Dodrill, a San Bernardino, California, resident who these days can be found at City of Hope several times a week for chemo sessions that run multiple hours at a stretch. In between all the examinations and infusions, Saddler-Dodrill spends her waiting time inside the beautiful Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
And Jeanne? That's Jeanne Lawrence, a 45-year City of Hope veteran and one of the original Biller Center team. She's totally comfortable with the 'mom' reference. “I love it,” she says. “I'm kind of a mother hen, guiding people” toward information, resources and services. The center provides all three under one roof. Just glance at their daily schedule of classes and you begin to get the idea. From chemo tips to couples counseling to art therapy and yoga, it's all there.
Free knit caps provided to patients
Located in a highly visible space just behind the main registration desk, the center has a decidedly nonclinical look and feel. It's more like a library — or a living room. That's by design. Hospitals, even those as patient-friendly as City of Hope, can sometimes feel harsh and intimidating. The center is a homey oasis where patients can decamp, decompress, pick up a book about virtually anything cancer-related, connect with a helpful person, and on and on. Even more important, it is the gateway to City of Hope's vast and growing array of Supportive Care services and professionals, from psychologists to social workers to cosmetologists and much more.
Having integrated care in one central, welcoming and accessible location differentiates City of Hope from other hospitals. For thousands of grateful patients and their families, the Biller Center is a physical as well as emotional lifeline, the go-to place for so many different kinds of help, as well as for taking a break from hospital intensity ... for feeling human again.
It all began when Sheri Biller saw something that needed fixing.
Sheri and Les Biller
The former chair of City of Hope's Board of Directors, Sheri Biller watched in sadness and frustration as two close friends succumbed to breast cancer at other hospitals. Though each received excellent care, their families struggled. She wanted to help.
“I realized,” Biller recalled in 2011, “that this is the collateral damage of life-threatening disease. And I wanted to fix it.” She did so by working closely with City of Hope supportive care experts to conceive, design and build a new kind of all-in-one facility, funded by The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation.
But beyond its appealing physical space, the center stands out because of its people, an extraordinary group of staff and volunteers, all driven by a desire to help. Foremost among them are the patient navigators. Every new patient has access to a navigator, who offers orientation, introduces the medical team, lays out all the available resources and serves as the point-person to handle any problems that may come up.
“I had a job. Now I have a passion!” exclaimed David Trejo, a longtime navigator who's now operations manager. When his wife developed breast cancer, Trejo, then a financial services professional, saw the caring and compassion of her social workers. He began volunteering at City of Hope, eventually joining the center's full-time staff, a perfect opportunity, he said, to put his considerable people skills to good use. And he's far from alone.
“Everyone I work with,” he said, “has been touched by cancer in some way. They are caring, compassionate people in the 'servant-leadership' model.”
Working at the Biller Center can be a powerful draw for a certain kind of uniquely unselfish personality. It certainly was for Lawrence, bringing her back to City of Hope even after she thought she'd wrapped up her career. “I retired in 2010,” she recalls. “But after about a year away, I wanted to go back,” and as soon as a spot opened up, that's exactly what she did, returning to the Biller Center because “patients need a person, as well as a place.”
And make no mistake, patients truly appreciate such a unique level of personal contact.
“I've had eight different chemos, plus radiation,” said Saddler-Dodrill. “And each time I've had a problem or a question about side effects or anything else, I'd just ask Jeanne, and she pulls out the right pamphlet with everything I need.”
One of many patient support events held at the Biller Center
“They make you feel like you're part of the family. Like you're the only patient there!” The doctors know it. They routinely tell patients, “Start at the Biller Center, and just ask!”
Saddler-Dodrill has followed that advice from the start. She's proud to list all the center benefits she's received, and their effect on her family. “When I needed physical therapy,” she recalled, “they handled the referrals. They even called around to find every therapist who accepted my insurance. They filled out all the forms when I had to go on disability.
“Also, my husband is a musician who works at night, and taking me to my appointments is hard on him. So the Biller Center team found a room where he could sleep.” She's become something of an expert on the many classes offered. “I've gone to art therapy, music therapy, yoga, tai chi. I've done meditation, gotten massages. We've been to couples counseling, and it probably kept us together.”
Saddler-Dodrill's experience is not unusual. It's typical, and there are many more stories of extraordinary service and kindness. An elderly couple wanted to renew their wedding vows. The staff at the center made it happen, even finding the original minister from 40 years ago. Another couple, high school sweethearts no longer married but deeply in love and desperately ill, wished to be together to comfort one another in their final hours. It was arranged. And there's the astounding act of love by supportive care psychologist Jeanelle Folbrecht, Ph.D., who spotted a 13-year-old boy, all alone, being treated for leukemia. He's now her adopted son.
As the center enters its second decade, Sheri Biller's “fix” continues with innovation and expansion, including a touchscreen patient questionnaire program so successful it's being licensed to other facilities. It provides crucial data that helps determine what patients need right now, and which new services should be offered in the future.
The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation also recently awarded City of Hope a $1 million grant to bring leading-edge supportive care training to more than 1,500 health care professionals within the City of Hope clinical network and at hospitals across the country.
The point is, for cancer or any serious illness, true healing involves more than doctors and test tubes. That's why the Biller Center exists, both as a building and a concept.
“We look at the bigger picture,” said Trejo. “The whole person. The spouse. The kids. The entire family. We're meeting them at their most vulnerable, in perhaps the most difficult circumstances of their lives. So we offer something for everyone. We pull them out of the clinical environment. And we let them know that we're here to help.”