Health Heroes

By Staff Photography by Gene Pollux March 1, 2012

Nicole Johnson

At 18, Nicole Johnson was beautiful, bright and ambitious. She was also newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a life-threatening condition that requires constant monitoring. Unfortunately, the doctors told her, you’ll have to reassess your hopes and dreams—diabetes narrows your life and opportunities. For Nicole, the diagnosis was isolating and embarrassing, and for the next five years, her disease was her secret companion, known only to family and a few friends.

Nevertheless, at 23, Nicole, a talented singer, decided to enter the Miss Virginia pageant. The morning of the talent competition, she went into a diabetic coma. As the hotel corridor filled with onlookers, paramedics rushed to her room. When she finally awoke, her first words were, “Does anyone know?”

That was the last time she ever tried to hide her disease. Nicole went on to place in the top 10 in the pageant; the next year, she was named Miss America.

“I didn’t want to wear a mask any more,” she says. “That episode forced me to see my life as a gift and to understand that although my disease would join me on my life journey, I didn’t have to let it steal my life and joy.”

At 36, Nicole has broadcast that message to the world. A journalist and public health advocate, she’s earned two master’s degrees, written three books about diabetes, hosted a weekly CNBC show on the subject, and for the past few years has directed the USF Health Diabetes Education Center in Tampa.

Now Sarasota’s Patterson Foundation has awarded $5.66 million to a program Nicole will direct for USF. “Bringing Science Home” will help people with chronic diseases live fuller, happier lives. The program will start by studying diabetes patients and their families with the intention of creating new products and approaches to help them. An organization for students with Type 1 diabetes has also been launched, and Johnson hopes it will become national.

“We’ll start with diabetes, but the end point won’t be only diabetes,” says Johnson. She points out that the lessons she has learned and the knowledge and new strategies the Patterson grant will generate could “take people experiencing everything from chronic illness to tragedy and help them flip their pain into power.”—Pam Daniel


Trey Lauderdale

Almost four years ago, Trey Lauderdale, now 28, waited outside Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco without a ticket, hoping to get some face time with a software developer so he could pitch his unique idea: an iPhone application that would allow doctors and nurses on the floor of a hospital to communicate more efficiently. Lauderdale spent hours hanging around Starbucks and bars full of conference-goers. Finally he convinced a young web developer named Ben King to listen to his idea—and Voalté was launched.

Lauderdale’s next important connection was with Sarasota’s Rob Campbell, a veteran technology entrepreneur who has worked with both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Campbell agreed to become Voalté’s CEO and told the young guys they needed to move to Sarasota. Voalté (an abbreviation of voice, alarm and text) is now in six hospitals around the country and will soon be in four more. It’s already won a number of industry awards. The company employs 25 people, most of them techie transplants from other areas of the country, and hopes to hire 50 more this year.

“Doctors and nurses don’t want to play telephone tag,” Lauderdale says. “They want to do their job.”

Voalté enables them to bypass multiple communication systems in hospitals—the public paging over the intercom, phones and alarms—and carry a smartphone that handles all of this vital information and sends it instantaneously and efficiently. The Joint Commission on Healthcare blames breakdowns in hospital communications for many of the events that end in death or irreversible harm to patients—the very problems that Voalté was designed to help prevent.

Lauderdale says one of his proudest moments occurred at a training session with a nurse who told him she would never use the technology. “It was 2 in the morning, and she needed the floor pharmacist immediately, but she couldn’t get to him because he was on the phone with other hospital staff,” he says. “I told her, ‘He’s on Voalté.’ Literally two seconds later, he told her he’d be there in five minutes to deliver the meds.” The nurse became an instant convert. “That was pretty cool,” he says. —Susan Burns


Dr. James Fiorica

Five years ago, Sarasota Memorial Hospital officials asked gynecologic oncologist Dr. James Fiorica to come here from USF’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. At that time, local women with gynecological cancers had to go out of town for surgery and other advanced treatments. “That was disruptive to patients and their families,” Fiorica, 54, says. It wasn’t good for the local medical community, either, since Sarasota doctors, from gynecologists to medical oncologists, who might otherwise have worked with those women lost the opportunity to treat them.

And that, says Fiorica, was a loss for the women, too, because “The level of medical care here is topnotch. I don’t know if most people realize how strong it is.” He knows, he says, because he researched it before deciding to come. “It would be hard in many places to do what I do,” he explains. Advanced surgeries require top-tier critical care and intensive care, as well as a team of skilled doctors focusing

on every case—and Fiorica found such doctors in Sarasota.

As one of the few gynecological oncologists between Tampa and Fort, Fiorica now performs surgeries and co-manages ongoing care with his patients’ other doctors. Soft-spoken and kind, he’s known for his passion for pursuing the very best treatment for every patient. He’s also got a gift for listening and for collaboration, which has helped him integrate the latest knowledge and techniques into Sarasota’s medical community, raising the standard of care for thousands of local women.

A researcher who has helped change the way cervical cancer is treated and the founder of a statewide gynecological cancer research network, Fiorica has brought new treatments to Sarasota, including establishing a pioneering genetic testing program at Sarasota Memorial. He’s also brought clinical trials here, giving local women access to the most promising new drugs and treatment protocols.

“We’ve come a long way in treating these cancers,” he says. Some gynecological cancers can now be cured with minimally invasive surgery; and some women with ovarian cancer, the hardest to find and treat, are surviving five years and more. Fiorica hopes to see the day ovarian cancer can be treated as a chronic illness. The hardest part of his work, he says, is watching women “come to the end” because he has nothing left to offer them. “That’s what drives me to find new treatment and drugs,” he says. —Pam Daniel


Ian and Barbara McKenzie

Ian McKenzie, now 83, had surgery at Doctors Hospital in 2001. “The staff treated me so well that I wanted to go back,” he says. Now, almost 10 years later, Ian and his wife, Barbara, 74, have racked up 16,000 hours of volunteer work at the hospital. Ian is the treasurer for the auxiliary, plays music to inspire patients to exercise and drives the courtesy cart, while Barbara volunteers in marketing and helps organize the hospital’s new library, which she calls a “salvation for many patients.” They also help raise scholarship funds for high school students interested in medical professions. They’re at the hospital all day, sometimes as many as six days a week—they even get their exercise in the hospital gym.

For them, it’s a true labor of love. ““Contributing to the well-being of the people” has added to their own well-being, says Ian. And it’s not just the patients who reap the rewards of their efforts. Barbara describes the staff—more than 600 employees and 280 volunteers—as “a very happy family,” and the McKenzies believe anything they can do to help that family is worth their time. They also support several theater groups and used to volunteer at Selby Gardens and Ringling Museum, and they are convinced that their generous sense of community is a common Sarasota asset.

Ian and Barbara were born in Toronto, and until retiring, they both worked for the same company, electrical power authority Ontario Hydro. They retired here in 1989. Now proud American citizens, they say they wouldn’t change a thing. Being part of an organization that restores and improves health for so many people, plus the personal thanks and respect from patients and staff—“a volunteer’s pay,” says Barbara—are more than enough to keep them going.

Every once in a while, after four or five especially long days, Ian begins to feel the strain. But then, he jokes, he always remembers why he keeps coming back for more: “I’d rather be here than at home washing dishes.”—Beau Denton


Marie Borsellino

With her calm, open demeanor and searching, big brown eyes, Marie Borsellino makes you feel she has all the time in the world for you. No wonder the hundreds of breast cancer patients she’s helped since becoming Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s first “breast health navigator” in 2008 have called her everything from a “beautiful soul” to a “guiding spirit” on their journey through cancer. Borsellino, a 47-year-old nurse who’s specially trained in oncology and breast health, works with women and their families from the first suspicion of cancer through every stage of diagnosis and treatment. Her services are free, and available to patients of every income level.

With the help of an “incredible team” that includes psychologists, oncologists, and social workers, Borsellino says she “cuts through the fog that comes with a cancer diagnosis,” educating, counseling, coordinating care, and connecting patients with services and resources.

“It’s amazing to see how even women with the best insurance and support benefit from this,” she says. She also works with patients in dire circumstances—including “one woman who didn’t have a bed.” She slices through red tape to get sick women on Medicaid, finds grants to defray household bills and has even persuaded utility companies to keep the power on.

“We have more than 700 breast cancer patients that come through Sarasota Memorial,” Borsellino says. “It’s important they have access to the best and timeliest care.” Since her position was created, she says, “We’ve been able to improve our delivery of service tremendously.”

Still, “fear and poverty” keep too many women from seeking help until it is too late, says Borsellino, a single mother of three who in addition to working full-time is going to school with the intention of earning her master’s degree. Her goal? Working in universal healthcare, a reform she sees as inevitable and necessary. And though professionals must learn to separate themselves from their patients’ suffering, she admits that gets harder as she gets older. “As life happens to us, we identify more,” she says. “I’ve learned from my patients how precious life is.” —Pam Daniel

Filed under
Show Comments