UF Health patient grateful for treatment that came at critical time
Vern Gransden entered his treatment room at 7:40 a.m., bleary-eyed and crabby. He shared a look with his doctors.
“Go get a cup of coffee, Vern,” one of them said. “It’s all gonna be OK.”
Gransden smiled back. His morning visits to the UF Health radiation oncology center were earlier than he liked, but his doctors had turned the crack-of-dawn start into a bit of a running joke. It made it easier for Gransden to roll out of his bed and into treatment day in and day out.
Gransden, 61, knows excellent care when he sees it. He’s been a nurse for 12 years in Louisiana and has worked in health care for 20. He currently works for Louisiana Children’s Medical Center at West Jefferson Medical Center in New Orleans.
His summer plans were upended when he underwent a PET scan on June 23. He was diagnosed with anal cancer, a rare illness that affects 1 in 100,000 people. To his shock, the scan also revealed a tumor in his lung, which suggested that the cancer may have metastasized.
“I didn’t know if they were the same cancer,” Gransden said. “Those were really long days.”
Thankfully, the results revealed the tumors to be unrelated and therefore more treatable. Gransden started radiation treatment on Aug. 2 at East Jefferson Medical Center in Metairie, Louisiana.
His treatments were going as planned before Category 4 Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana on Aug. 29 and wrecked the state. It devastated the coastline, destroyed power plants and shut down the hospital. The storm hit during a critical time in Gransden’s medical care, and he immediately began searching for a way to continue his treatment.
Just two days after Ida hit, Gransden called UF Health. Within an hour, he was on a Zoom call with Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in radiation oncology.
“When can you be here, Vern?” she asked. “I will help you. I know I can help you.”
Gransden made an immediate impression on Hitchcock. She said she was surprised and impressed with his proactive attitude in the face of cancer.
“I expected to get on that Zoom call with somebody who was in a dark place and scared,” she said. “Instead, he just calmly and almost cheerfully laid out the details. He anticipated exactly what I needed to know and delivered that information in a very kind and friendly manner.”
Two mornings after that call, Gransden packed his bags and flew to Gainesville with his husband, Richard Martin, and his dog, Cletus. Just four days after the storm, he was back in a hospital undergoing a CT scan.
Gransden was impressed with how willing Hitchcock was to shift her schedule.
“They’re going to have to do the extra,” Gransden said. “I know that because I do the extra every day at work, and it’s a pain. But the payoff is a better experience for your patient.”
Hitchcock wanted to continue Gransden’s radiation therapy as soon as possible. She said the treatment works best when the radiation is administered in successive steps, creating a cumulative effect that destroys the cancer cells.
Gransden said Hitchcock’s quick response and “when can you be here?” question changed his mindset for the duration of his Gainesville stay. It helped him commit to his four weeks in town, most of which he spent without Martin, who flew back after Gransden’s first week to return to his job as a schoolteacher.
Gransden’s first week at UF Health was spent in preparation, the next two in treatment, and the last in recovery. His primary caretakers were Hitchcock and Brian Ramnaraign, MD.
Gransden’s team paid close attention to his comfort. During his daily radiation treatment, they let him wear a gown, which made the awkward frog-legged position he had to assume more comfortable than if he’d had to disrobe completely.
They answered every question he had about his treatment gently and precisely. One of the technicians told him everything he wanted to know about the machinery, the delivery of the radiation and his CT scan. Hitchcock walked him through which spots the radiation beams would target, mapping out their precise location to show him how they’d avoid vital organs.
“They were the kindest, nicest people,” Gransden said. “They made me feel secure. They really had a vibe like they’d done it forever.”
Gransden said his treatment team cared for him holistically. They made sure he always had enough to eat, that his mood was stable, and they even pointed him toward free housing just minutes from the Radiation Oncology Building.
His caregivers were personable and always had a smile on their faces, which he knows isn’t always easy in health care. But it made all the difference.
“It gives you optimism about moving forward,” he said.
Hitchcock described her team as the kindest, most hardworking people she knows.
“When you’re on a team like that, it's so easy to keep a positive outlook,” she said. “To know that you’re doing the right thing, when you really care for patients the way you would care for your family member.”
Gransden’s nursing background helped his treatment run smoothly, Hitchcock said. Not only was he knowledgeable about healthcare practices, but he maintained his positive outlook and asked questions, which Hitchcock said cancer doctors love.
He also maintained his health through drinking lots of water, eating well and exercising.
Gransden said he was the easiest patient that could have walked in the treatment room. He had stage one anal cancer with a good chance for recovery and no complications from prior treatments. However, he said he didn’t believe his caretakers would have blinked an eye had his outlook been bleak.
“They treated me just as compassionately and completely as they would have had I had some more complicated situation,” Gransden said.
By the time he finished treatment, he felt no pain or discomfort from the cancer at all.
“I’m in a place of very deep gratitude,” Gransden said. “And that also makes it easier to be in a space of acceptance.”
Hitchcock said she’s glad Gransden chose UF.
“I’m super proud to be part of a care organization that he knew about; our reputation preceded us,” Hitchcock said. “I feel like we lived up to our good reputation for delivering excellent cancer care.”
After he returned to Louisiana, Gransden successfully underwent an upper lobectomy surgery, in which the upper part of his lung was removed. His lungs will be monitored three times a year for at least one year, while his anal cancer will be checked every three months for five years.
Coming out of a grueling treatment process, it would be understandable, even expected, for Gransden to feel worn down. Instead, he’s approaching life with cautious optimism.
“If it hadn’t been for that, I would be telling you that I'm the happiest man in the world,” he said. “So, maybe I’m the second happiest man in the world.”
Gransden’s slowly building back up to his normal routine: grocery shopping, bike riding, and eyeing a telehealth position in nursing. Later this year, he plans a family ski trip to Utah.
He said he wants to offer the kind of care he got at UF Health and East Jefferson Medical Center to his own patients. He was set to return to work at Louisiana Children’s Medical Center on Dec. 5.
“My plans moving forward are to go back to work as a nurse and take advantage of this excellent care I’ve had for my cancer,” Gransden said. “It’s put me in a position to be able to go back and care for others."