There was nothing unusual about the early August day when Salvatore Vallone opened the front door of his Reading, Pa., home to let his daughter in.
She, however, noticed right away that his eyes were yellow.
That was the moment when everything changed; when normal, routine and ordinary vanished from the lives of Sal, his wife Sue and their entire family.
Sal, who had some medical experience from his years in the Army, knew jaundice wasn’t something to fool around with and went to a nearby urgent care center to get checked out. From there, Sal was admitted to the local hospital where a seemingly endless series of tests and scans determined he had pancreatic cancer.
It was a daunting diagnosis.
About 45,000 people a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to federal data.
The doctors in Reading recommended Sal come to Philadelphia for treatment with Dr. Charles Yeo, chair of Surgery at Jefferson University Hospitals, because of his expertise and experience in performing the Whipple and mini-Whipple procedures used to remove pancreatic tumors.
“I did a lot of research on the internet and found that Dr. Yeo had done more than 1,100 Whipple procedures at Jefferson, and before that at Johns Hopkins,” Sal says.
The next week Sal and Sue came to Philadelphia, met with Dr. Yeo and his team of pancreatic cancer specialists and was scheduled for surgery the next week.
“For a patient like Mr. Vallone or others, you have to recognize that most of them when they come to see us don’t want to be there. They are hoping this was all a mistake,” says Dr. Yeo. “Our job as clinicians is to educate them, to provide some hope, to provide some optimism and to let them know we’ve seen their case before, we’ve usually seen their case many many many times before.”
In fact, Sal would become the 1,147th patient Dr. Yeo had performed a Whipple procedure on during his career and his 500th since coming to Jefferson as the Samuel L. Gross Professor and Chair of Surgery.
As with all complex surgeries, experience matters. Before, during and after the operation are all critical times for the patient. The experience of the surgeon matters for patient outcomes as does the experience of the entire team.
And Jefferson’s team has more experience in treating pancreatic and related cancers as any in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware area.
During his first appointment with Dr. Yeo, Sal was comforted by the surgeon’s straightforward approach.
“He showed us the tumor and told us what he would like to do, and that I was a candidate for the Whipple procedure,” Sal recalls.
A week later, Sal was back at Jefferson for his surgery.
“Most patients will be with us in Center City for six to eight days, and they’ll go home,” says Dr. Yeo. “They’ll go home without their tumor, and they’ll actually go home with the opportunity to make a full recovery.”
And so, he adds, “we’ve taken them from a very scared, from a very concerned, from a very worried patient, to one who has had a successful operation, and now they’re ready to go on with the rest of their life with a good quality of life and the hope for many many years of survival.”
Sal returned to Reading six days after his surgery to begin his journey of recovery.