Dr. Jack Van Geffen
The Man Behind AAMC's State-of-the-Art Weapon in the Fight Against Cancer
Every Wednesday, Dr. Jack Van Geffen of Anne Arundel Medical Center jumps from operating one of the newest, most advanced machines on this planet - a scanner that can detect tumors and determine whether they are cancerous -- to operating one of the oldest and simplest - his sailboat, a Pearson 30 named Winsome.
"It's wonderful to suddenly be relying on the simplicity of the wind and the waves rather than the technology of electrons," says Dr. Van Geffen, who races his boat in the Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday Night Races series.
Van Geffen is the Director of Nuclear Medicine at AAMC and the man behind the hospital's PET/CT scanner, a state-of-the-art scanning device that analyzes tumors using two different technologies. The CT scan finds the tumor and plots its exact location, size and shape. The PET scan determines whether the tumor is cancerous.
Most people in the medical field have heard of one or both technologies. However, AAMC was one of the first to have both technologies combined into one machine, which means the images from the two technologies match up well and patients need fewer visits. It also means the doctors can better determine the best way to treat the tumor and possibly save the patient from unnecessary surgery
"The PET/CT combination is out at the very edge of technology in terms of pinpointing and analyzing the tumor and making a determination whether a mass is cancerous," he said.
AAMC doctors now have more than two years experience using the PET/CT. Experienced doctors using state-of-the-art technology ultimately results in faster treatments and, more importantly, patients being treated effectively and efficiently. It's like night and day from when Van Geffen first went into nuclear medicine and the field was only a few years old.
"We have much better resolution now and are capable of seeing the small things," he says. "Before it was very nebulous. If we could see anything at all, you thought, 'Wow.'"
Van Geffen grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of an operating officer for a produce-packing business and a homemaker and the middle child between two sisters. He was a third-generation New Orleans resident in a large family where his mother was one of six children and his father one of 12; he attended an all boys Jesuit high school and played all-state basketball. To save his parents some money, he attended Rice University in Houston on a full scholarship.
"I went from an all boys high school to a school where the ratio of men to women was four to one," he says. "Needless to say, when I returned to New Orleans to attend medical school, we had ourselves a good time after the first year."
While at Rice University, Van Geffen initially studied math, a subject he thoroughly enjoyed. He soon realized, however, the opportunities to make a living on the subject were limited, and following the lead of many of his friends, decided to switch to pre-med. Later he went on to attend the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, which he enjoyed very much because his career was open-ended as to what he could do afterwards.
"You could be a general practitioner in some small practice or surgeon in a large hospital," he says. "It still gave me options."
After medical school, he completed his residency while serving in the Army. During this time, he did a short rotation in the emerging field of nuclear medicine and ran into an old friend - mathematics.
"Nuclear medicine involves scientific computation," says Van Geffen, who has an unusual knack for boiling down the very complex topic to layman terms. "I found that in nuclear medicine, I could practice medicine and still have a math background."
It was the early 1970s and nuclear medicine was only four or five years old at the time, a fact that also attracted the young doctor.
"We only had one or two agents to look at organs," he remembers. "Now we have lots of tailored drugs to look at specific organs."
Van Geffen completed two fellowships in California and practiced in Germany with the Army before he and his wife, Laura, decided to move to Maryland.
We liked the idea that we could sail," he says.
Once in Maryland, he worked for two other hospitals as well as AAMC. Ultimately he decided to dedicate all of his time to AAMC because it was a growing regional hospital with the ability to purchase the latest equipment.
"The ability to buy new equipment is crucial in the field of nuclear medicine," he says.
Several years ago, when AAMC officials were trying to determine their next major equipment purchase, PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanning technology was most commonly available only as a stand-alone system. However, the hospital's commitment to stay at least one step ahead in technology led them to search out the next generation in cancer imaging - the GE Discovery ST PET/CT scanner. The initial cost was higher by a substantial margin, but the benefits of the PET/CT to the patients and physicians, in terms of better outcomes and fewer unnecessary surgeries, ultimately lowered costs overall.
The GE system blends two body images, fusing both patient anatomy and physiology into a single image. This allows the doctors treating the patient to know exactly where the patient's tumor is and whether surgery, radiation or chemotherapy is the best type of treatment.
"If it's not cancer, then we wouldn't have to operate," Dr. Van Geffen says. "If it is cancer, the PET/CT can help tell us which is the more effective treatment - surgery or radiation. In addition, because the PET/CT tells us the exact size of the tumor, it also tells us how to direct radiation in order to spare as much of the healthy tissue as possible."
The purchase of the PET/CT helped AAMC's DeCesaris Cancer Institute become the world's first See and Treat® Cancer Care Center of Excellence for treating patients using the most advanced medical imaging equipment from GE Healthcare and radiation therapy technologies from Varian Medical Systems. As part of being named a See and Treat® Cancer Care Center of Excellence, AAMC made a long-term commitment not only to continue the acquisition of these technologically advanced systems but also to ensure that the hospital has the high-caliber clinical team to use them.
"Maryland's cancer statistics generally and Anne Arundel County's specifically have placed us squarely on the front line in the fight against cancer," says Oncologist Stanley Watkins, Jr., M.D., Medical Director of the DeCesaris Cancer Institute. "Having this technology is a signal to the community that AAMC has the resources to gain the upper hand in that fight and will continue to have these resources for some time to come."
In addition to Van Geffen, radiologists Vernon Croft, M.D., Tom Lank, M.D., Nick Malakis, M.D., and James W. Reinig, M.D. are the primary users of the PET/CT system.
"We are in the midst of a tremendous breakthrough in the ways our hospital can diagnose and treat cancer-a breakthrough based in part on our purchase of the PET/CT scanner," says Van Geffen, who now lives in downtown Annapolis with his wife Laura. They have three grown children. "These are exciting times for a community hospital that has graduated to the status of a top-flight medical resource for the Baltimore - Washington region."