Avera Cancer Institute Pierre Meets Rural Patients Where They Are

Long distances. Time away from family. Gasoline. Inclement weather. Hotel rooms that don’t feel like home. Travel can be tiring for anyone. Unfortunately for rural cancer patients, travel is too often part of getting treatment. Radiation therapy demands daily treatment for five to eight weeks. And in places like central South Dakota, traveling 150 miles to the closest radiation center is the norm rather than the exception. The distance is more than a slight inconvenience. Rather, it makes life more difficult for rural patients each day that they cope with cancer treatment. 

This disparity is exactly the kind of problem that the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Rural Healthcare Program is solving. In 2012, the Program established an initiative to support facilities with cancer centers, and develop comprehensive hospital-based cancer services in areas where none existed. Since then, Helmsley funding created five brand-new cancer centers and enhanced care at nine existing centers throughout the Upper Midwest.

On November 28, 2018, history was made in Pierre, the state capital of South Dakota. This date marked the first radiation treatment with a linear accelerator at the new Avera Cancer Institute Pierre at the Helmsley Center, part of Avera St. Mary’s Hospital. Patients who lived around Pierre previously devoted five to seven hours to travel to-and-from treatment facilities. Extensive travel time forced some to quit their jobs, making medical bills even more daunting. To make matters worse, they often missed out on time with support systems that is invaluable during times of distress. Now, radiation therapy is closer to home for thousands, especially the approximately 300 Avera St. Mary’s patients who need this type of treatment each year.

When Helmsley connected with Avera St. Mary’s in 2016, it wasn’t the first time that Avera considered doing something like this. Rather, Avera St. Mary’s Foundation Director Kellie Yackley mentioned that this was a long-held desire but its feasibility was difficult to assess. Helmsley, which covered a third of this project, got the ball rolling with a $7.5 million grant. An additional $2.5 million would be awarded if Avera St. Mary’s fundraised $2.5 million. Yackley noticed that it took little convincing to galvanize surrounding communities to donate; they already understood how transformative such an institute would be. They were also enthusiastic about how the challenge grant would amplify the impact of their donations, she said. Yackley was thrilled when donations flowed so rapidly that Avera had the full $2.5 million eight months sooner than when they were required to have it to receive Helmsley’s match.

“This project proves that philanthropy can make the impossible, possible,” said Avera St. Mary’s President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mike Holland. “Helmsley’s grant was a huge leap forward. The community then stepped up to earn the challenge grant. A diverse group contributed, ranging from those with a loved one undergoing cancer care to children who wanted to help with lemonade stands and any way they could. Our donors’ generosity will enable us to serve central South Dakota for generations to come.”

Trustee Walter Panzirer stated, “At Helmsley, we strive to ensure that grantee projects have both a major impact and a long-lasting one. Avera Cancer Institute Pierre will exemplify this, thanks in part to the hard work of the teams at Avera St. Mary’s Hospital and Foundation and the astounding community support that drove this forward.”