Yale professor is first patient at new cancer hospital

Sterling Professor Maria Rosa Menocal walked into the lobby of Smilow Cancer Hospital , which was nearly empty Monday morning except for a camera crew trailing behind her. She laughed when she saw her radiation oncologist, Roy Decker, dressed in a suit rather than his typical lab coat. As classical music played, they embraced, and Decker handed Menocal a bouquet of flowers.

“It was a little hilarious,” Menocal, who directs the Whitney Humanities Center, said in a phone interview Monday night.

While he admitted that the flowers were not his idea, Decker said he was “ecstatic” that as the Smilow Hospital opened its doors to patients, Menocal was the very first one.

Menocal said being first was just a “bizarre coincidence.” She said she had no apprehensions about the facility being so new.

“There may be new machines, but obviously they’ve tested them before,” Menocal joked. “At the end of the day, it’s the people who are [performing the treatments] who matter most, and that’s not a concern — they’re terrific.”

Because Menocal is a member of the Yale Health Plan, she has obtained all of her medical care through Yale-New Haven Hospital since she started teaching at the University in 1986, she said. So when she was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma — a rare form of cancer that affects the mucous membranes — she said she did not think to look elsewhere for treatment options because of the quality of cancer care available at Yale.

Menocal underwent surgery Aug. 28 to remove a tumor from her nasal cavity. She said her surgeon, Yale School of Medicine professor Clarence Sasaki, did a “fantastic” job.

“You can’t even tell if you look at me,” she said.

In the basement of the Smilow Hospital on Monday, Menocal received a new form of non-invasive radiation treatment. While older machines did not allow for precise manipulation of rays, the Smilow Hospital’s radiation machine uses “linear accelerator” technology to target Menocal’s nasal cavity while avoiding her healthy optic nerve and salivary glands.

Over the next six weeks, Menocal will return to the Smilow Hospital 30 times for radiation treatment sessions, each lasting about 15 minutes.

Menocal and Decker said they were “optimistic” that she will make a full recovery. Although Menocal is not teaching this semester, she continues to direct the Whitney Humanities Center.

“I’m able to go about my business, but much more slowly than usual,” Menocal said.

The Smilow Hospital opened Oct. 21. While the lower levels of the 14-floor hospital are open to outpatients, the upper floors will not be fully operational until April 2010.

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