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Dr. Leland McElveen’s legacy of cancer care

Posted: February 11, 2014 11:54 a.m.
Updated: February 12, 2014 5:00 a.m.

“You do so well with the really sick patients -- better even than with the well ones.”

After hearing that comment time and again as a medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina, Dr. Leland McElveen decided to devote his career to helping those battling cancer. For the patients, family members, and fellow physicians he’s touched over the years, that decision has created a legacy worth remembering.

Of course, the genial doctor wouldn’t put it that way. He said that the most gratifying part of oncology care is that “you get back as much as you give.”

Dr. McElveen brought oncology treatment to Kershaw County nearly 20 years ago. As a member of South Carolina Oncology Associates (SCOA) in Columbia, he often saw cancer patients referred by local physicians, and quickly recognized the need for an oncologist in Camden.

“He didn’t have to come over here,” surgeon Dr. Paul Christenberry noted. “We would have still sent our patients to SCOA, but he did it for the patients and the community. That’s just how he is. It’s all about the patients.”

McElveen also was always willing to help local physicians with any specialty care they needed for patients, making recommendations and helping with referrals.

“He was a great resource for us, particularly when there weren’t as many specialists here,” Christenberry said.

Christenberry also noted Dr. McElveen’s profound impact on the local medical community. His expertise has been invaluable to other physicians, and his ability to effectively communicate that knowledge was critical.

“Dr. McElveen created this continuous, positive feedback loop that just raised the level of everybody’s game. It’s impossible to underestimate the impact that has had on all of us,” Christenberry said.

Charming and funny, it’s easy to see why patients and families came to trust and depend on McElveen.

“He was always so caring and encouraging that you just knew you could get through this – he’s like a member of the family” said Linda Graham, who has survived three bouts with colon cancer over the last decade. “He can always make us laugh, and cancer survivors <italic> need </italic> to laugh.”

KershawHealth Oncology Nurse Manager Joan Flynn worked with Dr. McElveen for 17 years, and treasures the experience.

“He told great stories, and you could hear him laughing down the hallway,” Flynn said. “He loved his patients, and he told them that. He would visit them in their homes and at work to make sure they were all right. He danced with his patients at our annual Oncology Department Christmas party. It’s just how he is.”

For McElveen, each patient is unique.

“You have to know their situation; I want to know as much about the patient as I do about their disease,” he said.

Cancer treatment is never simply a case of treating just the patient, he said. They have a spouse, children, family -- who are part of the team, and it’s critical to think about how they fit in. How does their faith factor in? How strong is their support network? The answers to all of these questions become part of the fabric of treatment for him.

That was certainly the case for Graham. Along with family and friends, it was the love, prayers and support of her church family that got her through diagnosis and treatment. Not to mention the friends she made among the staff at KershawHealth.

“Ann Frye (an LPN in the oncology department) and I became great friends,” she said. “I even taught her to quilt, and a few years ago we made a quilt for Dr. McElveen that had some of his photographs of trains on it. That was terrific fun.”

Graham also appreciates the constant dedication McElveen has shown toward his patients. When she was hospitalized, he would often make rounds at five or six in the morning, before putting in a full day at the office. In the evening, he would return again for rounds.

“I never saw him leave anything unfinished,” Flynn said of McElveen’s care through all her years of treatment. “If he had a question or concern, he checked it out immediately.”

During his years as a physician, McElveen recognized that simply making the initial decision about treatment is the hardest part for those with cancer. Aside from the shock of diagnosis, there are often several treatment options to be sorted through. He notes a Chinese proverb that one choice is harmony but many choices lead to discord.

“Once you decide about treatment and pick that one thing, it’s a case of moving forward and getting through it,” McElveen said.

When he started his practice, McElveen said, oncologists didn’t have the level of supportive care they have available today, and treatment could be incredibly difficult for patients. That change, he said, is one of the biggest changes in cancer treatment, and is probably equal to the advances in chemotherapy drugs and other treatment options. Sadly, he doesn’t see cancer disappearing anytime soon. An aging population, genetic factors, exposure to various environmental toxins, and lifestyle choices virtually ensure cancer will remain with us, he said. However, McElveen hopes new drugs, targeted treatments and improved methods of early detection will give oncologists the edge.

McElveen said he also seen significant progress at KershawHealth. The medical center has grown extensively, and improvements to the intensive care unit have made a huge difference, as has the addition of medical specialties like pulmonology and urology. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is his appreciation for his colleagues on the medical staff and coworkers at the hospital.

“They’re just nice people, and that has made a huge difference,” he said.

Flynn noted that McElveen told the staff he appreciated their help every day, and made a point to remember birthdays and other special events -- something that made a big impression on everyone.

Dr. McElveen retired from South Carolina Oncology Associates and KershawHealth in December. Today, he’s enjoying photography and reading, making regular trips to the gym, and thinking about his next steps.

“I have to do something,” he said. “I’m not the type to just sit around, but it’s been nice to have a little time off.”

While he will be greatly missed by his current and former patients, staff members, and medical colleagues, the lasting and positive effect he’s had on the medical staff and local community will continue for years.

As Flynn noted, it’s like the line in an old song,“…they don’t make them like that anymore.”

(Judy Ferrell is KershawHealth’s director of marketing.)

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