IU’s proton therapy center closes after 2,079 patients

On Thursday morning, Dennis Day became the 2,079th — and final — patient to ring the bell.

He did it in front of three dozen staff members from the IU Health Proton Therapy Center and IU Cyclotron lined up along the wall in the center's hallway. The bell ringing, celebrating a patient's final treatment, has been a tradition at the center since it opened in 2004.

When the staffers, plus family members, applauded, Day was clearly moved.

"I feel honored," said the 65-year-old prostate cancer survivor from Sandoval, Illinois, his eyes welling up. "This place has given me a second chance at life, and a higher quality of life. They've treated my cancer pain-free and free of any side effects. And the staff has bent over backward to make me feel comfortable and safe."

It seemed fitting that Day, he of the white beard and ample girth, resembles Santa Claus — considering the joy the center has brought to so many children, and adults, over the years.

"I'm taking this with me," Day told The Herald-Times, pointing to a hard plastic body mold that was used to hold his torso motionless on a treatment table while he received his treatments at the center. "I'm going to use it when I give presentations back home about how wonderful proton therapy is."

John Kerstiens, the center's chief operating officer and chief financial officer, said the staff's mood on the final day of the center's operation was fraught with emotion.

"It's a sad day, but it's been an amazing ride," he said. "For a lot of us, this has been more than a job. It's been a labor of love — a calling."

Kerstiens said it would have been easy for the staff to become bitter about the center's closing after it was announced in August.

"But everyone stepped up and went beyond all expectations," he said. "They put aside how this might affect them personally and focused only on their patients. They're a sterling group of people."

The reddened eyes of radiation therapist Debbie Stockhover were like spigots — sending rivulets of tears trickling down both cheeks, meeting beneath her chin and dripping onto her lap.

"This is so much more than a job," she said. "The patients here have become part of our family. They've become part of our lives."

Amanda Burnham, the center's manager of marketing and development, said when the announcement was made that the center would close by the end of the year, it hit the staff like a 2-by-4.

"But then, it seemed like we were in time warp," she said. "After Thanksgiving, though, it started to become real. Today, now that it's really happening, things have been very emotional."

Ringing the bell just before Day was 48-year-old Peter McFarland, a South Bend high school guidance counselor who finished seven weeks of treatment for a brain tumor. He said he planned to be back at work today.

"People here treat you like you're a member of their family," he said. "They get to know you as a person and learn all about you."

Since the announced closure four months ago, about 30 of the center's employees have found jobs with Indiana University, IU Health, proton therapy centers in other states or doctors' offices in Bloomington. The 20 remaining employees will receive six weeks of full pay and benefits while job searching, and if they are still unemployed at that point, severance pay will kick in.

Kerstiens said he has interviewed for positions at proton therapy centers in Atlanta and Miami. Burnham said she is trying to figure out what her next step will be.

"For people like me who've been with IU for a long time, IU has been very generous with our severance packages," she said. "It's given me time to rethink what I want to do."

Kerstiens said that while the IU Cyclotron operations and Proton Therapy Center are closed, the Center for Exploration of Energy and Matter will continue to exist in the same facility. He said the use of the remaining space in the building has yet to be determined, and Indiana University is evaluating what to do with the proton therapy equipment.

"It is going to be managed by the university, and the university has requested proposals from a number of companies to do a decommission," he said.

At 9:37 a.m. Thursday, three staff members walked down a long hallway, its barren walls pocked with holes from nails that once supported patients' photos and pictures. They stopped in front of the bell that's been rung by hundreds of celebratory cancer survivors over the past decade.

One staffer climbed onto a step stool and used a power drill to remove the screws holding the bell in place. He removed it from the wall and handed it to Burnham, who tucked it under her arm and slowly walked away.

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