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VIProfile: Dr. John L. Bell

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By Gay Lyons

Dr. John L. Bell, director of of the UT Cancer Institute, surgical oncologist and professor of surgical oncology, started thinking about medical school towards the end of high school. “I was the first person in my family to go to college,” he recalls. “I got a job working with a cancer doctor right after high school. I did everything from taking out the garbage to getting lunch. I created a billing system, and I literally hand carried their first grant application to the National Cancer Institute’s Grants Office in Bethesda, Maryland. I was up all night making copies, punching holes, stapling.”

The Birmingham native graduated from the University of Alabama and from medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He stayed in Birmingham for a six year surgical residency.

“I was interested in surgery, and I got good training there,” he says. “It was the early 80’s, and everyone was training to be a heart surgeon. I decided I wanted to do something different, so I applied for a surgical oncology fellowship at M.D. Anderson in Houston and was there for two years.”

“I came to UT Medical Center straight out of fellowship,” he continues. “I figured: ‘it’s a good place to start; we’ll see what happens.’ Here I am 30 years later.”

“I love Knoxville,” he says. “It’s been a great place to live and raise a family.” The family includes wife Beverly, whom he met when both were attending the University of Alabama, and their three daughters, Lauren, age 32, Emily, age 30, and Jamie, age 28. Most recently the family has expanded to include 18 month old grandson James and 14-month old twin granddaughters Amelia and Eleann (known as Millie and Ellie).

“I was recruited to put together an oncology program and build a surgical training program as it related to cancer,” he says. “I didn’t realize the mountain I was facing, but I’ve loved every minute of it.”

He recalls a pivotal moment early in his tenure at UTMC.

“Chancellor Bill Rice wanted to see me. He said, ‘before you get tainted by who we are and what we do, I want you to write a white paper and lay out your vision for cancer care.’”

“The white paper I wrote addressed three areas: patient care, research and education. There were two cancer doctors here at the time, including me. Thirty years later the UT Cancer Institute has almost 300 team members and is out of space. We need to add on to the building. We need to hire more people. We need to do much more research.”

What Dr. Bell describes as the “tagline” for the white paper he wrote states a mission that still guides the Institute:

“In the future when anyone in East Tennessee thinks they have cancer or has been told they have cancer, I want them to think, ’I’ve got to get over to UT Medical Center because they know what they’re doing.’ We’ve recruited doctors from all over who still have connections to [the places they came from.] We can treat people right here at home. The majority of people don’t need to travel to get state of the art cancer care.”

“We started recruiting specialists,” he says. “The fields change so fast. The more specialized you are, the better.”

Dr. Bell selected breast cancer as his specialty.

“When I first came here, I did everything, including general surgery and trauma,” he recalls. “I liked the multidisciplinary approach needed with breast cancer.”

“The breast cancer field has changed in every way,” he continues. ”We’ve learned so much. We never used to talk about prevention strategies; there are now prevention strategies we know work.”

“We go out in the community. We go to churches, health fairs, community centers. We have two full time community educators. They tell the story, ask questions and give mammograms, either free or at reduced cost. The goal is early detection.”

“We have the infrastructure in place to follow through [if there’s a problem]. The next step is the assignment of nurse or lay navigators by disease site. The goal of the navigators is to make stuff happen in a timely fashion and to condense the appointments.”

“The multidisciplinary conferences are a huge thing. Every day there are 30 doctors meeting about patients to determine the best course of treatment. Our goal is to have a plan for every patient within five business days. That’s huge.

Doctors volunteer t heir time to do t his. It’s not about money. When we recruit people, we want them to come and sit in on a conference and see what we do. They want to be part of it. It’s hard to reproduce what we’ve been able to do here.”

Patient care has been expanded to include integrative health programs. “We can take care of the body, mind and spirit. We want to capitalize on that, to blend traditional western medicine with eastern practices. We offer massages, facials, yoga and tai chi at affordable rates. We now have physicians trained in integrative health care. I believe very strongly about that mind, body, spirit integration. I wanted to blaze that path in this community. “

“We’ve got to do a lot more with research. That’s where philanthropy comes in. Research is expensive, but it gets results. We’ve learned so much about breast cancer because there has been a lot of money going to breast cancer research, and we’ve learned from that research.”

“Research is the key to making cancer obsolete. At some point, we’ll be able to diagnose cancer before it’s clinically detectable. We’ve gone from moving at glacial speed to moving at light speed.”

His enthusiasm and excitement for those light speed developments are evident. “I don’t think about retirement. I’ve got too much still to do.”

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