Oncologist Dr. Rhonda Gentry Works With CARTI to Go Above and Beyond for Arkansas Cancer Patients

In Dr. Rhonda Gentry’s office/exam room, alongside diagrams and models of lungs, ovaries and breasts, are numerous photos of her smiling children, 10-year-old Maddie and 6-year-old Gavin (who both have birthdays this month). Placed inconspicuously beside a photo of the kids in sunglasses, is a small wooden block with painted letters. It reads, “Miracles Happen Every Day.”

It would be easy to dismiss as insignificant, something purchased on a whim. But after mere minutes with Gentry, it becomes clear it’s much more than that. The statement on this block defines how she practices hematology/oncology at CARTI, which this month opens a new, state-of-the-art Cancer Center and celebrates its 39th annual Festival of Trees.

“I try to look at patients as if they are the miracle,” she says. “They could be the miracle. I don’t sell them a miracle because I’m not a good doctor if I promise that. I try to give them information that is practical that they can use. But if there’s one person that has beat it, then that person can beat it too. I think the doctor has to believe that.”

Finding Her Calling

A native of Hot Springs, in high school Gentry was an avid art student.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘Great, but what are you going to do to pay your bills, and how are you going to help people?’” she says.

Science and math came relatively easy to her, so she moved to Little Rock to attend UALR and then pharmacy school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. While working at a local pharmacy, she befriended many of the physicians in the building. One day, one of them told her she should consider medical school.

“That’s the first time I’d thought about it,” she remembers. “And I thought, ok, I love people and I love trying to fix problems. I decided to try it out. And it worked,” she laughs.

But of all the medical specialties to choose from, why oncology?

“Cancer picked me,” she says. “I knew when I was in medical school that I probably wasn’t cut out to be a surgeon, for multiple reasons. I hate early mornings; I have a short attention span; I don’t how I could stay scrubbed for four hours; I like my Diet Coke; I need my breaks. And I just love interacting with people, so I felt pretty sure that internal medicine was where I was headed.”

In Gentry’s third year of medical school she started her first rotation, in pediatric oncology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The experience almost drove her to quit school.

“For me, it wasn’t as much about the cancer; it was about kids and their suffering, and the families. I hadn’t done any clinical rotations yet, and I just wasn’t equipped for it. So the fact that I ended up doing oncology is really interesting to me. I longed for this deeper connection, and I just didn’t know what it looked like,” she says.

When Gentry was in her intern year, a few more clinical rotations under her belt, she got a glimpse of what she was really meant to do.

“I was on the oncology unit in the hospital, and I was struck immediately. I could go in, patients had questions, and I could help with them,” she says. “You were at a very meaningful place instantly, and even if you couldn’t fix cancer, you could at least make something better that day.”

“At the same time, my husband — I’m since divorced — but my husband’s grandmother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and we were realizing there were no more good options,” she recalls.

Shortly thereafter, her husband’s father was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. In a small window of time, Gentry had gone from the medical team side of the equation to the family side, gaining a new perspective and sense of empathy for cancer patients and their families.

“I work with people who say, ‘I can’t imagine doing what you do.’ I don’t know how I do it. I love what I do. I walk in one room and tell them they’re cured. That’s my favorite,” Gentry smiles. “I hate walking in a room with bad news, but if I can make it better … A lot of times, especially when patients are in end-of-life care, doctors don’t know what to do for them. I sometimes don’t know what to do either. So I just hold their hand, or I cry with them. I wear waterproof mascara because I’m a sappy doctor. We hug on people all day long. We tell them we love them, we mean it.”

From this cancer survivor’s perspective, Gentry’s very real, emotional approach is refreshing for cancer patients facing their own mortality.

“It’s a private moment. It’s deep, visceral. I can see the fear, and I try to answer the questions before patients even know they have them. Being able to bring peace to someone is really important, even if I can’t fix the cancer. It’s very humbling, and I mean that sincerely. It’s as if I’m allowed to watch God work,” Gentry says, wiping away a tear.

A New Era for CARTI

Gentry finished medical school and her residency, both at UAMS, and joined the CARTI hematology/oncology medical staff in 2008. She works with Dr. Brad Baltz, who started Hematology Oncology Services of Arkansas in 2006. HOSA became a part of CARTI in 2013.

According to Gentry, being asked to join HOSA while she was still in her fellowship was “dumb, blind luck,” though we suspect it had more to do with her talent and reputation than she’ll admit. She’s nothing if not modest.

When she arrived at HOSA, Gentry soon realized Dr. Baltz had “cherry-picked” the best staff, from the front door to the chemo room and everywhere in between. She mentions a few by name, including her nurse, Cathy Lee. “We are yin-yang; she can finish my sentences. I can look at her and she knows what I need. It’s great to work around people who are like-minded. That’s one of the things that has been so nice about coming together with CARTI.”

Like many, Gentry says she used to think of CARTI as just radiation. But it’s much more than that. For 38 years, CARTI has been treating cancer patients with radiation therapy, but in 2011 CARTI created a private practice cancer organization, offering medical oncology, diagnostic imaging and head and neck surgery in addition to radiation oncology.

“I read this quote by Howard Thurman: ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’ That’s what CARTI feels like to me,” Gentry says. “My peers — whether it’s nurses, social workers or physicians with whom I work in all departments — it’s like we’re woven from similar fabrics, such that we really want to make this journey better for people. And then to have CARTI in a position where they can build the surroundings that will hopefully allow us to do that better — it’s exciting.”

The surroundings she refers to is CARTI’s comprehensive, state-of-the-art Cancer Center, slated to open this month. The new, 170,000-SF, $90 million center, located off Barrow Road, will staff 11 hematology oncologists, four radiation oncologists, four diagnostic oncologists and one surgical oncologist and see between 500 and 700 patients a day.

The center will have five patient entrances, including separate entrances for radiation therapy and diagnostic imaging as well as entrances through the parking garage that will allow patients to enter on the floor they are visiting, thus limiting their number of steps.

Another goal of the center is to make the treatment experience a more peaceful one for patients. Gentry says aside from the east view downtown, patients will see trees all around. There is also a chapel and healing garden, a walking path with a fountain, and a green rooftop garden. The first floor features a fireplace, and the 83-chair chemotherapy suite on the fourth floor has expansive windows and balconies with wooded views of Shinall and Pinnacle Mountains.

For the sake of convenience, Bray Gourmet will offer healthy dining options, and there’s a pharmacy, social workers on hand, a massage therapy center, an appearance and resource center and more.

It’s events like the CARTI Auxiliary’s Festival of Trees that help make large-scale projects like the Cancer Center a reality.

This year marks the 39th annual four-day Festival of Trees and its black-tie Tux ’n Trees, the Festival’s cornerstone event. The gala will include fine dining, dancing to Dizzy 7 and live and silent auctions.

Gentry will speak, along with one of her “miracle” patients, a man with liver cancer who wasn’t expected to live much longer than a year. He just celebrated his five-year anniversary with a trip to Alaska. Neither love public speaking, but both are willing to do it for CARTI.

“I told him, ‘It’s not about either of us or our delivery. It’s about the message,’” she says.

And the message is an important one for Arkansas’ cancer patients.

According to CARTI, 100 percent of the proceeds from Festival of Trees is allocated to direct patient assistance programs and services, including housing; transportation and fuel vouchers; medication assistance; emotional support programs and professional counseling for patients and caregivers; wellness and nutritional programs; CancerAnswers educational luncheon seminars; and restorative weekend retreats for cancer patients and caregivers.

“I’m not a formal girl,” Gentry says, “but from a practical perspective, in my day-to-day work, I see the benefits of it, specifically for patients that can’t afford their nausea-blocking medicines, or can’t drive back and forth. The foundation and proceeds from the event, it’s real. I can see it. I call my social worker Laura, and I say, ‘Laura, I’ve got to have this medicine. What do I do?’ ‘We’ll take care of it,’ she says. It’s a privilege, especially in the healthcare climate that we’re in.”

And while the new facility is expansive and “stunning,” it’s just brick and mortar. What it stands for is the more important piece of the puzzle.

“That building is such a blessing and is so amazing, but the reason it will work is because of all these people inside that are alive and united with the calling of providing excellent cancer care,” Gentry says. “At the end of the day, when you don’t have anything else you can do, holding that person’s hand. It’s about excellence and going above and beyond.”

Tux ‘n Trees
When/ 6 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21
Where/ Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets/ $200 per person; $2,000 per table of 10
Info/ 660-7616; For info on all of the Festival of Trees events, visit CARTI.com

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