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North Hills Monthly

UPMC Passavant Esophageal and Lung Surgery Center: Specialized Care, Close to Home

Jun 01, 2015 11:30AM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine

At the UPMC Passavant Esophageal and Lung Surgery Center, patients receive comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment for a myriad of conditions.

In the past, patients in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs who were diagnosed with diseases of the lung and esophagus had to travel into the city for more complex surgeries. But now, thanks to the expertise of the surgeons at the UPMC Passavant Esophageal and Lung Surgery Center, located on the UPMC Passavant campus in McCandless, patients with these issues can receive treatment closer to home.

“People sometimes think they have to travel into the city for thoracic surgery. However, the reality is they can receive state-of-the-art thoracic surgery right here in the North Hills. We currently perform complex, minimally invasive lung and esophageal surgeries every day,” explains Ryan Levy, MD, chief of thoracic surgery at UPMC Passavant and assistant professor in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh. “Our patients like knowing that they have the option of receiving their thoracic surgical care at UPMC Passavant, which may be 10 minutes from their homes. It’s a big advantage for them.

“UPMC Passavant has a strong tradition of minimally invasive lung surgery and we are certainly continuing to build on this,” he adds. “The biggest change in the past two years has been the rapid growth of our minimally invasive esophageal surgery program. Two or three years ago, there may have been five or 10 minimally invasive esophagectomies a year at UPMC Passavant. In the past one-and-a-half years, we’ve already done close to 40 cases.” Dr. Levy attributes his success to the many years he spent training with Dr. James Luketich, chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UPMC.

Specialized Care in a Community Setting
At the UPMC Passavant Esophageal and Lung Surgery Center, patients receive comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment for a myriad of conditions, including esophageal cancer; lung cancer; gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and Barrett’s Esophagus; paraesophageal and hiatal hernias; thymus gland tumors; mediastinal tumors; mesothelioma; and other tumors of the chest wall and pleura (one of the two membranes around the lungs).

“As thoracic surgeons, we provide both diagnostic and therapeutic management of disorders from the esophagus to the stomach and from the trachea to the lungs,” said Dr. Levy. “Some of these procedures are done without any incisions and most others can be performed using minimally invasive, small incisions.”

Peggy Czlapinski, 56, of Saxonburg, was glad to have such expert care when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer in 2014. “I was having headaches and tingling in my hands, so I went to my doctor, who ordered a CAT scan,” explains Ms. Czlapinski, who had plating and fusing in her neck from having bulging discs removed. “The CAT scan, which was on my head and neck, didn’t show anything, but eventually I lost my voice, and had another CAT scan that included my chest. That’s when they discovered a mass in my right lung.”

After a CT-guided biopsy of her lung, it was determined to be non-small cell lung cancer. Ms. Czlapinski underwent chemotherapy, followed by a VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery) right upper lobectomy in February of 2015. “Dr. Levy was wonderful from the get-go,” says Ms. Czlapinski. “He explained everything to me; he sometimes even drew pictures to make the procedure more understandable. It helped my family and I so much; no one was left in the dark, and we were all on the same page in terms of understanding what was happening, and how things were going to work. I was so thrilled we had a game plan.”

Ms. Czlapinski’s surgery went well, and today she says that there is no evidence of the disease. “I still get a little fatigued, but that’s to be expected. I feel great,” she says.

“I really can’t say enough about everyone at UPMC Passavant–I was so impressed,” she adds. “Dr. Levy was at the hospital every morning, including Saturday and Sunday. Not his assistant–him. He’s very dedicated. And the whole UPMC CancerCenter, from the nurses to my oncologist, Dr. Robert Gluckman–they were all just wonderful.”

The Expertise of UPMC
The UPMC Passavant Esophageal and Lung Surgery Center is part of the UPMC Esophageal and Lung Surgery Institute (ELSI), one of the largest and most experienced thoracic surgical practices in the country.

“At UPMC Passavant, we are able to take advantage of all of the expertise that comes from being part of a larger system,” explains Dr. Levy. “Our protocols and treatments are well integrated with the rest of UPMC. Complex cases are reviewed in a multidisciplinary conference of surgeons, oncologists, pulmonologists, and pathologists. If there’s a patient who requires something we cannot offer, we can seamlessly coordinate services to get them exactly what they need.

“For example, we have a vibrant program for non-operative treatment of high-risk lung cancer patients unable to tolerate surgery,” he adds. “I am frequently coordinating stereotactic radiosurgery (“CyberKnife®”) treatment for such patients who ultimately get their therapy downtown.”

Patients who come to UPMC Passavant are able to take advantage of the same types of technology that are offered at the larger urban hospitals, including navigational bronchoscopy and robotic-assisted thoracic surgery.

UPMC Passavant has one of highest-volume lung cancer programs within UPMC. “We also manage a very high volume of high-risk patients with poor lung function in the stereotactic radiosurgery program in coordination with UPMC Presbyterian-Shadyside campus,” adds Dr. Levy. “Recently, UPMC Passavant was designated as one of the lung cancer screening program sites for UPMC.”

At UPMC Passavant, endoscopic radiofrequency ablation (RFA), a technique used for destroying a potentially precancerous disorder of the esophagus called Barrett’s esophagus, is also performed. “We are able to use endoscopic RFA to burn precancerous cells in the lining of the esophagus,” Dr. Levy says. “In this procedure, the patient goes home the same day.”

A Multidisciplinary Approach
While the use of advanced technologies is important for good patient outcomes, the expertise of the physicians who use them is perhaps more critical. “We take a multidisciplinary approach to treating the patient. Often, decisions on treatment are made in conjunction with medical oncology, radiation oncology and surgery,” says Dr. Levy. “When appropriate or available, we are able to enroll patients in Hillman Cancer Center and University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute clinical trials from UPMC Passavant.

“We also have a very dedicated, skilled pulmonary critical care group that assists in the post-operative care of lung and esophageal patients 24 hours a day,” he adds. “Most importantly, the patients see their attending physician every day. They’re also being evaluated daily by their thoracic surgeon, pulmonary doctor and oncologist; not just residents or fellows. This is a big advantage that patients really appreciate.”

Michael Palmer, 44, of New Wilmington, PA, is one of those patients. Diagnosed in 2012 with Stage 4 esophageal cancer, he found the help he needed at UPMC Passavant.

Mr. Palmer first realized that something was wrong on Thanksgiving in 2011, when he began having issues swallowing. “The muscles in my esophagus were not pushing food down, and my wife, who is in the medical field, scheduled a scope at UPMC Horizon. On Feb. 8, they found a tumor on my esophagus.”

Before he was able to have surgery, Mr. Palmer underwent seven cycles of chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor in order to make it small enough to surgically remove. “My chemotherapy at UPMC Passavant went great; they do everything they can to make you comfortable,” he says. “Chemo is not fun; you’re there for six or seven hours per day, but I had a private room while I was there, which was fantastic. When you’re not having a good day, it’s nice to have silence in the room so you can relax.”

Mr. Palmer’s esophagectomy was performed by Dr. Levy on Sept. 27, 2012. “I had my operation and was in the ICU on Saturday, was in a hospital room on Sunday, and was back at home on Tuesday,” he says. “Dr. Levy is a godsend; he’s a very talented individual. His bedside manner is upfront and truthful, and he takes the time to explain what will happen and how it will happen.

“He was also there all through my recovery time,” Mr. Palmer continues. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He doesn’t talk over you or around you–he talks to you like you’ve been his best friend forever.”

Mr. Palmer also credits the nursing staff for his successful recovery, and for helping him get back on his feet and back to work a week after surgery. “The nurses in the ICU were awesome–all of the nurses there were,” he says. “They not only took great care of me, but they were always friendly, even around the clock. I had trouble sleeping, so I’d walk around at night, and they’d stop and talk to me just to see how I was doing.”

Mr. Palmer now goes for follow-up visits every four months, and he’s happy to see familiar faces. “When I go down for PET scans, I always feel welcome,” he says. “Even though they see so many people, it seems like they always remember me when I come through. They’re just great people.”

Not surprisingly, this type of top-notch care is drawing people from all over the region; approximately 50 percent of patients who come to UPMC Passavant for thoracic services are from outside of Pittsburgh. “We operate on a large volume of patients from the Altoona and Johnstown areas,” says Dr. Levy. “We also see a lot of patients from Butler and Lawrence counties, as well as significant numbers from West Virginia and eastern Ohio.

“Patients love coming to UPMC Passavant because they receive specialty, thoracic surgical care, all in a community hospital setting,” he adds. “This is what I most commonly hear from patients; how thrilled they are at the level of care they receive from our nursing staff, ICU staff and consulting services.” 

For more information on the UPMC Passavant Esophageal and Lung Surgery Center, visit  This advertorial has been provided by UPMC.