Things looked bleak when Debra Baker, 60, sat down at UC Irvine Medical Center with Dr. Alessio Pigazzi, a colorectal surgeon at UC Irvine Health, in January 2015.
Baker, a real estate agent in Crestline, had been diagnosed with cancer of the appendix and had undergone surgery to remove the appendix, uterus and ovaries at another Orange County hospital. But the cancer spread, and surgeons referred her to UC Irvine Health for additional treatment.
A serious diagnosis
The doctor and patient squared off — the start of a candid and honest relationship that, Baker says, saved her life.
“He was straightforward,” Baker recalls. “He said, ‘This is serious. It’s not good.’ ” But Baker saw through the tough talk and had confidence that Pigazzi could perform the advanced treatments necessary to restore her health.
And Pigazzi came through. “He was more than positive. He listened and I never got the feeling that I wasn’t being heard. I love that man.”
The benefits of HIPEC
Today, Baker is two years out from a life-threatening disease that was treated with extensive surgery, an innovative form of chemotherapy called hyperthermic intraoperative chemotherapy (HIPEC) and a six-week hospitalization.
Pigazzi, a colon and rectal surgeon, performed the complex procedure and oversaw Baker’s recovery, assisted by Dr. Mehraneh Jafari, also a colorectal surgeon and part of the HIPEC team. Baker would not likely have received the complex HIPEC treatment, requiring specialized surgical and recovery teams, at other hospitals.
Near the end of a 12-hour surgery to remove cancer from her abdominal cavity, doctors bathed Baker’s internal organs with heated chemotherapy. After about an hour of direct contact between the cancer-fighting solution and her internal organs, the fluid was pumped out. HIPEC, which can be performed only at hospitals with specially trained surgical and nursing teams, is designed to reach any undetected cancer cells and to reduce recurrence of disease. How HIPEC works ›
“I had never heard of it,” Baker says. “But it made a lot of sense. The chemo touches all of the surfaces. I kind of look at it as putting bleach on mold. After you go through something like this, there are a lot of things you reflect on. I was so fortunate that I received HIPEC.”
Pigazzi has been using HIPEC for several years. “It’s increasingly recognized as an important treatment modality for selected patients,” he says.
The HIPEC treatment and Pigazzi’s dedicated care and attention made Baker a fan for life.
One night during her six-week hospitalization, she awakened to find Pigazzi in her room to check on her. It was after midnight, and he had just returned to Orange County from a medical conference out of state. Despite the hour, he drove straight to his patient’s bedside, eager to check on how she was doing.
“Now that’s something you just don’t see,” she says.