Dr. John Ruckdeschel views the pieces of cancer care practiced by multiple departments at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and across the state with an eye toward using them to help solve the state's puzzle of high cancer deaths.
“The pieces are here. I want to take them to the next level,” he said. “They could be organized more, built out.”
The process is under way. The man credited with helping bring Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa to its National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center status said UMMC already has more cancer researchers, more cancer physicians and better organized programs than Moffitt had when he arrived in 1991.
His experience was attractive when UMMC began searching for a Cancer Institute director.
“Dr. Ruckdeschel has a rich and broad background in developing a focus on cancer, and a national reputation as an established leader in this area,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the school of medicine. “I look forward to his leadership of our Cancer Institute.”
In January, Ruckeschel succeeded Dr. Srinivasan Vijayakumar, who served three years as Cancer Institute director. Vijayakumar will continue as professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology.
The Cancer Institute needs a full time director,” Vijayakumar said. “I'm looking forward to working with him.”
Ruckdeschel also led the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit where he re-acquired its NCI comprehensive status and completed the process of making Karmanos a free-standing cancer hospital. In Detroit and Tampa, he built strong clinical networks by working with community physicians and patients, developing effective inter-disciplinary clinical teams and creating strong programs across clinical, basic, translational and population research.
He comes from the Synergy Cancer Center of Nevada in Las Vegas where he was an attending physician primarily treating lung cancers. He also held several other positions there.
In Mississippi, he said, he's found a place with a solid foundation but one that needs coordination to finish the structure. “All the pieces of the orchestra are here,” he said. “It needs a conductor.”
The plans fit with UMMC's goals of offering cutting-edge therapies for Mississippians and working with medical providers statewide to meet health-care needs.
Ruckdeschel said he found across-the-board enthusiasm for this idea. “Before I go somewhere I need to be sure the people here want that,” he said. “From the highest level to the secretaries to the people in stores, they want it. There is a strong desire for UMMC to take its rightful place as a leader in health care.”
Together, he said, UMMC, the community and state can lessen cancer deaths in the state.
“The pieces are in place to make something really special in Mississippi,” he said. “I'd like to get us off some of those lists we shouldn't be on, like cancer mortality, smoking and screening.”
His goal? Get Mississippi on lists that show growth, change, improvement and innovation that translate to fewer people having cancer or dying from it.
So why Mississippi? He said he came in part based on his strong Catholic faith and belief in using the skills he's been given to improve life in his community.
As he and his family considered their next move, “it became clear I wanted to find a place where putting together the skills I have would make a difference,” he said.
“I wanted to go to a place where five years from now I could see cancer care is demonstratively better.”
Returning to the South is a plus too, he said. His time in Tampa exposed him to a community where people had time to say hello and check on their neighbors.
“I just like that. I enjoy talking to people and finding out what is going on in their life,” he said. “I appreciate the genuine niceness.”
Soon, his wife, a nurse completing her Ph.D. in nursing education, and daughter, a high school senior, will join him. The family's careers center on medicine and giving back with a psychologist son, cardiologist daughter, another daughter completing studies in psychology and special education and the youngest entering college this fall with a goal of later studying medicine.
Outside work, Ruckdeschel said he hopes to pursue two passions: birdwatching and food.
An avid ornithologist since 1972, he said he loves traveling to birdwatch. He leaves Nevada as vice president of the Red Rock Audubon Society and hopes to affiliate with a Mississippi group.
Hunting is another goal, including training the two silver labs who recently joined the family.
He also hopes his new neighbors will provide true Southern recipes.
“I love to cook. I enjoy getting to know how people eat, what they eat,” he said, adding he's looking forward to having his own garden again and using locally grown vegetables in his meals.
“I have my own cast iron frying plan. My birthday dinner recently was shrimp and grits” he said, admitting he favors the low-country style over the more heavily spiced Cajun dish. Exploring local cuisine is high on the family's list of activities.
And, just what does he expect from his new community? “Send me some recipes.”