Scott Stern is helping change the nature of cancer care in Arkansas not only through his own practice, but by leading CARTI’s $10 million capital campaign.
Photography by Janet Warlick
Interrupted by a call in the middle of an interview, the gracious doctor can barely conceal his exasperation at what he is hearing from his nurse on the other end of the phone — for a second time.
“Can’t do it. No. No,” he said, gently but firmly. “It will have to wait, like we said, three weeks. He can go somewhere else if he wants to. No.” With that, Dr. Scott Stern gently puts down the receiver.
“It’s a skin cancer, for God’s sake,” he muttered, leaning forward at his desk in his green-walled, cubbyhole office in the old hematology-oncology building on the Baptist Health campus in Little Rock, Arkansas.
He smoothed his tightly trimmed, dark, wavy hair, then breaks into one of his signature smiles. “It’s not an emergency, it’s not like it’s impeding an airway.”
It has been another hectic week. It started with a nine-and-a-half-hour reconstructive surgery, then included eight new-patient interviews — which he never, ever hurries — then four two-and-a-half hour operations just yesterday and another two this morning. Now the lanky, bespectacled physician is relaxed in jeans and a bright orange sweater and ready to head for home on a Friday afternoon.
He is the only private-practice, head-neck surgical oncologist in Arkansas — and a key figure in the dramatic growth of CARTI from a specialty radiation therapy provider to a holistic cancer treatment center. The fact that a colleague was leaning on him to take care of his patient immediately, urgent or not, simply underscores the new reality of his workload: Malignant tumors of the ear, throat, sinus, mouth, tongue, and voice box are on the rise.
The principle cause, of course, is tobacco use, cigarettes, and snuff. But the second-leading cause is the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer. Alas, Stern said, the actor Michael Douglas was, in fact, accurate when he said he got throat cancer from oral sex. It just takes decades to show up, which is why it’s suddenly so pervasive in middle-aged and older men who were infected in college.
The good news: “These cancers have a high curable cure rate,” Stern said. There is also an HPV vaccine to prevent them, which he thinks should be given to every preteen in America, boys and girls. Head and neck tumors account for nearly 5 percent of all the cancer Americans are living with today, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. So as more baby boomers enter their “cancer years,” Stern’s patient load just keeps growing.
You wonder how this physician, a youthful 56 years old, ever finds time to do anything else in life. The walls and bookshelves in his office indicate he does.
Amid the reference books, patient thank-you notes, and vacation snapshots of him and his pharmacist wife, Cindy, are photographs of their adult son and daughter and new son-in-law, who is also the son of Stern’s best friend, Rick Rogala. On the wall behind his desk is a repetitive wood-block print from Rwanda of racing cyclists, homage to his favorite fitness pursuit.
Facing his desk is a framed photograph of the interior of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, where Stern performed with the River City Men’s Chorus in 2011. He is a founding member and contributes a rich tenor voice and vibrant stage presence to performances just as he does in the choir at St. James Methodist Church in Little Rock. In fact, he almost pursued voice as a career.
Thousands of people around the state whom he has diagnosed, treated, and guided through the most frightening health crisis of their lives are mighty grateful he didn’t.
“He is so upbeat and confident, you just have a feeling that if anyone can fix this, he can,” said Frances Finley of Little Rock, Ark. Finley, 80, is waging a second battle with throat cancer.
Grateful, as well, that Stern chose the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) over The Juilliard School for his post-graduate studies is a cadre of local private-practice colleagues in radiological and medical oncology, including chemotherapy, as well as the leaders of the nonprofit CARTI.
Four years ago, CARTI bought the for-profit Little Rock Hematology/Oncology group, where Stern had his practice, with the idea of expanding CARTI services beyond radiation therapy alone. Quickly, Stern was plucked to help develop a clinical plan for the new entity, and its centerpiece was coordinated care.
“He is a great physician and born leader,” said Jan Burford, president and CEO of CARTI. “And we believe in physician leadership, to make their vision our clinical direction.”
Stern standing in what will become a chemotherapy treatment area, where patients can look out onto a rooftop green space.
Born in Jackson, Mich., the son of a top merchandise manager for the high-end department store Jacobson’s, his family moved to Dallas when he was 8 after his father got a job with Neiman Marcus. While Stern was at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the family moved to Little Rock so his father could work for M.M. Cohn. That’s when his mother encouraged him to pursue medicine, his passion, over voice, his joy. It’s also when his father told him that all further education, including medical school, would be on his own dime.
Boston University would have cost him 10 times as much as UAMS, Stern said. So he chose to study under this region’s foremost otolaryngologist who, for the record, studied under the trusted New York otolaryngologist whose patients included Luciano Pavarotti, famed Italian operatic tenor, and the late, great Frank Sinatra. Stern also decided he wanted to be a surgeon, so he went on to the M.D. Anderson Center at the University of Texas to specialize in head and neck surgery for cancer.
Fast forward to 2012. That’s when CARTI announced plans to build a $90 million, 175,000-square-foot, multi-specialty cancer center south of Interstate 630 on Riley Drive and bring 25 private practice oncologists together under one roof, along with a pharmacy and full line of support programs from emotional, social, and spiritual services to beauty and dietary guidance.
Little known at the time was just how long some local oncologists, Stern among them, had imagined such a place.
“We had talked about it for 20 years. Then more recently we talked about buying CARTI to get it off the ground,” Stern said. “But then CARTI came back to us and said, ‘We have a better idea. Let’s think bigger.’” And the cancer center idea was born.
“The announcement sent out shock waves,” Stern admitted. The most dramatic reaction came from UAMS officials, who said they viewed the center as competition to its Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute and promptly severed all ties with CARTI.
Moving his practice under CARTI made economic sense for Stern; doing so removed billing, insurance, and overhead from his load and freed him to see more patients. It made business sense for CARTI, too, after one major client, Arkansas Urology, announced it was buying its own radiation equipment. But an outpatient center with specialists’ offices and support staff all in one place promised more: new cost savings, more patient convenience, and easier collaboration, which make good medical sense. And on donated land it could be financed seamlessly with revenue bonds, reserves, and a capital campaign.
“Cancer care has changed,” Burford said. “It is not only more multi-disciplinary today, it’s often simultaneous, radiation with chemotherapy. So physicians need to coordinate very closely.”
Not surprisingly, the high-energy Stern stepped up to help make it happen, volunteering to get fellow physicians and staff to donate to the CARTI Foundation’s $10 million capital campaign. Traci Braunfisch, the campaign’s co-chair, said they are a little more than $1 million shy; the building is in the hands of Nabholz Construction and the opening is set for October.
“We’ll make it,” Stern said, flashing another big smile.
Brad Baltz, a medical hematologist who knows Stern well, said he is perfect for fundraising. “I tend to judge people by their smile, and he smiles a lot,” Baltz said. “He’s a motivator. When he says ‘we can do this,’ you come away believing we can.”
It is what Stern does every day with patients like Finley, making her believe in the possibilities and assuring her that she’s not alone.
“I explain, ‘There are no guarantees. I will do my best. I will be your advocate, but I will also be with you,’” he said.
So whenever Finley, a widow, emails him that she’s feeling glum, he always answers, usually to tell her: “You cut that out!”
And whenever the job gets really tough, he relies on his strong faith, his road bike, his choral music, and his sense of good fortune to lower his stress level.
“My career is a tremendous blessing. I get to see patients at their very best and their very worst,” said Stern. “It’s extraordinary to see that lived out in front of you every day.”