On Valentine’s Day 2019, Ken Koehler’s life was turned upside down. With a large lump on his tongue, his doctor suspected cancer and referred Ken to Dr. Leela Lavasani, who specializes in ear, nose, and throat tumors.

Unfortunately, as Ken demonstrates, cancer can strike at any time in life. At the age of 36, Ken is married to his wife Giselle and together, they have three beautiful children. The diagnosis of cancer threatened to take his life, but the treatment also jeopardized his quality of life as a father, husband, and entrepreneur. For his outcome to be successful, he needed to eradicate the cancer and preserve essential motor functions such as being able to speak and swallowing his own food.

Local physicians are willing to take the call
When Ken and his wife showed up at Florida Gulf Coast ENT for a consult, Dr. Lavasani was still on maternity leave with her fourth child. Her partner took the in-person consultation, but quickly called Dr. Lavasani. With his examination notes, they both agreed that an expedited treatment would be necessary for this young man and they scheduled a biopsy for her first day back at the office the following week.

Shortly after the appointment, Ken received a personal call from Dr. Lavasani. Though she was still taking care of her baby, she wanted to reach out to him personally and explain the treatment protocols. Overwhelmed with the fact that he had cancer, Ken Koehler was not expecting his physician to call. She spent more than an hour on the phone thoroughly explaining everything that was going to happen, answering Ken and Giselle’s questions, and even bringing up information they never thought to ask.

“As soon as I hung up the phone, I felt more comfortable starting this journey with Dr. Lavasani.” – Ken Koehler

In recent years, Collier County has attracted more subspecialist physicians. These doctors have focused their training and expertise on the treatment of complicated diseases and chronic conditions that may last for years. Often, they see patients who are overwhelmed with grief, confusion, and anger at their circumstances. With the heart of a physician, they must share difficult realities with honesty and compassion to build lasting trust on a critical journey.

The patient’s best interests always come first
Cancer takes many forms in the body, which require distinct treatment protocols and different associated risks. After Ken’s biopsy confirmed cancer, Dr. Lavasani prepared him for the next step on his journey to health. In removing a tumor that was so close to his neck, there was a significant risk of losing key motor functions such as the ability to swallow and speak. While removing the cancer was essential for Ken’s life, a close second priority was preserving his quality of life.

The family prepared for a 12-hour surgery that would take the expertise of two surgeons. Dr. Lavasani would remove the tumor and surrounding glands in his neck, then another surgeon would simultaneously begin the reconstruction process. Lavasani has found that her patients have a higher degree of success when she collaborates with the reconstructive surgeon during treatment.

Local physicians, specialists, and hospitalists are adept at collaborating with caregivers and physicians regardless of what office, hospital, or state their counterpart works in. Through the years, physicians develop deep relationships with their patients, becoming an extension of their family. Their greatest desire is to see their patients achieve optimal health. Patients always come first.

“Positive patient outcomes are a team effort. It takes trust, collaboration, and compassion for the physician, the medical support team, and the patient to achieve health.” – Dr. Leela Lavasani, CCMS member

The journey together continues
In the weeks following Ken’s surgery, he couldn’t speak for himself, so his wife became his voice during recovery. The process was daunting, though they both took comfort in the trust they had with their physician.

When their patients are recovering from a major procedure, physicians demonstrate compassionate bedside care for both the patient and their family. While hopefully, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the patient, the physicians have helped hundreds of patients get through the worst days of their lives. And, physicians recognize that it is more than the patient going through this difficult time. Their bedside manner extends to the spouse, children, parents, and siblings of their patients.

Engaging patients in their own care
Though the margins from the tissue were clear of cancerous cells, Dr. Lavasani recommended that Ken follow up with radiation. As a highly trained specialist, Dr. Lavasani brought her years of training and experience to the discussion. However, she encouraged Ken to actively research the potential scenarios, even seeking out additional opinions so that they could make the decision together. Because of the trust they had established, Ken didn’t need to speak to another physician. Between his research and Dr. Lavasani’s expertise, he felt confident in the follow up care recommendations.

When patients become a part of their own care decisions, their compliance to treatment protocols improves, their emotional perspective is more positive, and overall outcomes are better. Working as a team, the specialist, general practitioner, and patient can overcome illness to create a happier and healthier future.

A year after his diagnosis with tongue cancer, Ken Koehler speaks clearly and has all his motor functions. Inspired with a second lease on life, he has made dramatic changes to eat healthier and expand his exercise routine. He feels better now than before the cancer diagnosis.

Specialists and treatment closer to home
As Southwest Florida continues to grow, more subspecialists have relocated to the area and increased access to world-class care in our community. A few short years ago, many specialists were referring patients with complex procedures for treatment in Tampa, Orlando, or Miami. Traveling to another part of the state for life-saving surgeries and after-care creates additional stress on patients and their families, who may not have the financial means to stay with their loved ones for an extended period.

“Our community enjoys greater health because we have attracted specialists and subspecialists that care so deeply about their patients’ best interests.” – Dr. David Wilkinson, CCMS Board President

For the physical, emotional, and economic health of our community, it is vital for patients to have access to a variety of subspecialists that bring valuable expertise to their care. Working with area hospitals, statewide government agencies, and associations, the Collier County Medical Society board of directors is advocating for the highest industry standards and access to the resources that doctors need to care for their patients.

For more information on how to get involved, contact CCMS executive director April Donahue, (239) 435-7727.