Have you ever wished that you could click your heels together three times and say ‘There is no place like home’ and be there? The Wizard of Oz was more than a Judy Garland movie for Yvonne Mack; it was an annual family vacation to The Land of Oz amusement park high atop Beech Mountain, NC.
For the Mooresville native, who began working long hours in her family’s clothing store at age 13, the yellow brick road symbolized a world full of new possibilities. During her senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she said to herself, “I’m going to be 35 one day and when I get there I might as well be doing what I want to do and that is practicing medicine.”
In 1992, after 8 years of medical training, Dr. Yvonne Mack became a board certified radiation oncologist and started her career as a clinical professor at the University of Florida. During that time, she met and married Maurice Williams of Waynesville, NC and together they have two sons.
Off to see the… possibilities
While in Florida, an old friend informed Dr. Mack that Southeast Radiation Oncology Group in Charlotte, NC was looking for someone who would be willing to serve as the first full-time radiation oncologist at the recently established Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in Boone, NC.
“At the time, we had two small children and my memories of the mountains included the Land of Oz and skiing at Beech Mountain,” said Dr. Mack. “Needless to say, I wanted my kids to enjoy those same experiences and we jumped at the opportunity to return home.”
In 1998, the High Country’s medical landscape consisted of little more than Watauga Medical Center (WMC), the modest Cancer Center and a handful of community physicians. Dr. Mack quickly found an ally in Richard Sparks, then President and CEO of Watauga Medical Center, who helped the physicians doing cancer care establish a multi-disciplinary tumor board in 1999.
The Tumor Board, which still meets on a weekly basis at Watauga Medical Center, consists of a radiologist, pathologist, the Cancer Center’s nurse navigator, radiation oncologist, medical oncologists and several community surgeons. Together, they discuss each patient’s case to create a treatment plan.
“Establishing the Tumor Board here was a tremendous first step in terms of providing the same level of care that you would expect to find at a larger cancer center off the mountain,” said Dr. Mack. “After we got all of the puzzle pieces in place, my next goal was to get the message out to the community.”
Dr. Mack proceeded to call on many doctors’ offices in the area to inform them that comprehensive oncology services were now available at the Cancer Center. Over the years that followed, a renovation of the Cancer Center allowed for expansion of both the Medical Oncology and Radiation Oncology areas of the center. Today, the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center continues to serve the cancer treatment needs of those in the High Country and since 1997 has maintained an accreditation from The Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons.
A day in the life: Courage, Heart and Faith
After arriving at work each morning, Dr. Mack has a standing 8 AM huddle with her office manager, registered nurse, dosimetrist and therapist director. Together, they prepare for both new patients in the clinic and for those arriving for radiation treatment in the linear accelerator room.
For new patients, she prepares by reviewing the patient’s medical records ahead of time. She then enters the patient room to introduce herself and explain what she learned from his/her chart, and then at that point asks the patient to share their story with her.
“Everyone has a story they need to tell,” said Dr. Mack. “For me, it is important to be compassionate, but to also remain objective because these patients depend on us.”
Typically, Dr. Mack works through lunch and is always the last person to leave at night around 8-9 pm. She stays late to return patient phone calls, review the dosimetry (radiation plan) and to contour (analyze CTs frame by frame to determine which areas of the body to treat with radiation). For each individual patient, contouring can take several hours to complete.
When asked how she remains so positive, Dr. Mack shared a quote from one of her patients about the peace they had found in God. “If I live, I’m good; and if I die, I’m going home.”
“Despite all the unknowns, I have a strong faith and I often pray ‘you just tell me what I need to do God and I’ll listen,’” said Dr. Mack.
Once she gets home, Dr. Mack concludes each day with a family huddle. Similar to her morning huddle, her husband and sons (when they are home from college) gather together for dinner. “This huddle allows my family, just like my team at work, to reconnect and to stay engaged.”
There’s no place like home
Dr. Mack has made the hard decision to leave her practice at the Seby B. Jones Cancer Center in Boone to continue practicing radiation oncology on a part-time basis in Charlotte. “As much as I love medicine, my first job is as a wife and a mother and that is the reason I am going part-time,” said Dr. Mack. “When we first moved here my husband was a stay at home dad and that allowed me to do what I love to do. My family gave to me and now it is time to give back.”
At the end of January 2017, Dr. Mack will conclude her Boone practice after caring for more than 3,500 patients in her 19 years of service at Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center. She will begin working part-time in Charlotte while still keeping her family home and roots in the mountains.
“I hope I was able to make a miserable journey (cancer) more pleasant for my patients,” she says. “I hope I was able to encourage them as much as they encouraged me.”
On February 1, 2017, the Seby B. Jones Cancer Center will welcome Dr. Scott Gasiorek to full-time practice to continue the quality work of Dr. Mack.
Melanie Thomas, RT(R)(T) who started working with Dr. Mack more than 13 years ago said, “Dr. Mack is by far the best patient advocate I’ve ever seen in a doctor. She will be greatly missed by patients, colleagues and staff.”
“I guess I never stopped longing for The Land of Oz,” said Dr. Mack with a grin. “And I am convinced, after witnessing the physical, human and spiritual beauty that is so evident in the people here, that I have found it.”
To learn more about the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center or Appalachian Regional Healthcare System visit www.apprhs.org.