- Cullman, Alabama

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May 6, 2013

The Lifefirst family

Young Vincent Karolewics dreamed of becoming a naval fighter pilot. He was drawn to the challenge of landing an aircraft on the short decks of a Navy ship rather than stationary runway.

 His father, Vincent Karolewics Sr., was an air traffic controller who was very active in their community, serving as chief of Fire and Rescue in his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia, for over 20 years. His son inherited his penchant for serving others. By the time he was 16, the younger Karolewics was already an Emergency Medical Technician and had a pilot’s license. After graduating high school he attended the University of Virginia on a naval scholarship.

During temporary active duty, he was stationed at Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, for basic flight training. “It was a time that I realized how much I loved flying advanced military aircraft and knew that this was the place that I wanted to be,” he said.

Everything was going according to plan. Karolewics was living his dream.

However, in his third year of college he had to find a new dream. Due to a motorcycle accident which practically ripped his left foot from his leg, he was forced to take a medical discharge. “There had to be a reason for that,” mused Dr. Karolewics.

It was then that he decided to become involved in some form of medicine.   

Dr. Karolewics finished his residency at Medical College of Virginia in 1996. In his fourth year of residency, he decided to specialize in either radiology or oncology, in part, because he was fascinated by the technology. Radiology didn’t provide enough patient contact, so he chose oncology, which brings him into contact with both fields. A classmate told him about an opening in a city he had never heard of — Cullman, Alabama. He came for an interview and was very impressed with Cullman Regional Medical Center. “It was so clean and the staff took such pride in it,” he recalled.

“We saw how actively engaged people were in this community,” he noted. “There are so many close relationships here. Cullman has a true family atmosphere.”

Dr. Karolewics was recruited by Dr. Lane Price, with whom he worked for a while.

He fell in love with Cullman. “It was everything I had hoped for,” he said. “We wanted to raise our family here, in such a safe environment.” That family began in 1999, with the birth of his first daughter, Christina, followed five years later by Sophia.

In 2001, Dr. Karolewics made the decision to invest in Lifefirst Imaging and Oncology. The complex was finished in 2003. He thoughtfully polled his staff, “What would you like to see in a cancer center?” he asked them.

“Together we came up with a leading edge facility,” he said, looking around at what they brought to their patients. “Local architect, Jock Leonard, and his brother, interior architect, Joel Leonard, worked closely with us. They had a lot of enthusiasm in the project and provided many of the unique design aspects we incorporated in the creation of Lifefirst,” said Dr. Karolewics. Uppermost in the minds of the whole team, from the nurses and office staff to the architects was the comfort of the patients who would be the ultimate benefactors of this careful planning.

Talk to anyone who has experienced hearing the dreaded word “cancer” and they will recall the dismay, uncertainty and fear that came with the diagnosis. Having someone who can relate to their condition is not only comforting, but can make all the difference in the world in the whole experience.

Dr. Karolewics actually has a deeper knowledge of what goes on in a patient’s mind, as well as what families are going through following such a diagnosis. His own father had cancer. It was a traumatic time for his family, but especially for Dr. Karolewics, who knew all too well what to expect from his father’s diagnosis.

He and his father were best of friends, hunting together, sharing a love of flying, and a mutual respect and admiration for one another.

His illness took a toll on his son, but through that turmoil, Dr. Karolewics became stronger. “I learned to lean on God,” he said. “I came to realize that there is a Divine Plan.”

This painful experience has made him more aware, more empathetic and patient with his own clients. They can hear the sincerity in his voice, see the compassion in his eyes, and note the expression of genuine concern for their welfare in the way he addresses their questions.

Even his office is a reflection of how important the whole patient is to him and to everyone on his team. On the walls of his reception room are family photos of the staff. They make the room warm and welcoming, putting patients at ease. The décor is relaxed, with soothing neutral colors, comfortable furniture, live plants and wide plantation shutters. In the treatment room the ceiling tiles are made of wood. This thoughtful addition was Dr. Karolewics own touch — he didn’t want his patients to have to stare up at acoustic tiles. He also installed striking landscape art overhead — back-lit scenes of autumn fields, woodland forests and bucolic pastures so that they could focus on something beautiful. All of this is to give patients a reassuring feeling from the time they step into the building. “We want everyone to feel as if they have just walked into a friend’s home,” said  R.N., Practice Administrator, Ellesha Whisenhunt.

Throughout the waiting area, along the halls and in each room are beautiful paintings and works of art. Quilts on loan from the Nimble Thimble Quilting Guild adorn one wall. There is a music library for those patients who like to relax to their favorite artist or group while having their treatments. Some patients prefer a little Elvis with their radiation; others have a choice of gospel, country or jazz. A library stocked with materials related to their illness and the latest medical information is available for those patients who like to stay abreast of the latest developments concerning their particular cancer.

You’ll quickly notice that embroidered on each staff member’s shirt are the words: “mind/body/spirit.” This is the philosophy that Dr. Karolewics and his staff bring to each and every patient. “We treat the whole patient, not just the cancer,” explained Whisenhunt.

Mind/body/spirit provides a holistic approach toward patient care and not just the physical aspect of dealing with a life threatening illness. “A person’s mental health is very important in determining how well they do with treatment,” explained Dr. Karolewics. “It is our goal to treat every patient as we would a family member or close friend. We have built our center with that concept at heart. In our reception area people are greeted by the pictures of our ‘family of care’. We have strived to create a serene home-like environment. This allows patients to focus on the positive aspects of their healthcare and recovery.”  

Perhaps the most unique feature of the whole office is that above most doorways hangs a horseshoe — upturned so that the luck won’t run out. There are also a few fourleaf clovers scattered here and there, so as to cover all bases.

One of the aspects of his job is that this disease does take the lives of some of his patients. He says that it never gets easier to lose them. “I hope I never stop grieving because that would mean losing the ability to feel,” he said softly. “This specialty has taught me to be more spiritual, and I hope that I can convey that to my patients.”

Dr. Karolewics says that some physicians become discouraged about religion because of what they see. “But in this area there is a strong group of oncologists who accept and embrace religion. Trials and studies have shown us that those patients who have strong religious backgrounds do much better.”

“As I’ve matured, I realized that if you don’t believe there is a greater purpose, then life becomes hollow,” he continued.

His patients agree. Most feel that they can talk to Dr. Karolewics and everyone on his staff, candidly. It’s common to find this doctor engaged in a heartfelt conversation with patients. “No one looks at a clock here,” he noted.

In addition to Whisenhunt, the staff includes Physicist Trina Lynd, and Certified Medical Dosimetrist John Killough, who map out individual treatment plans for each patient, focusing on the location and the type of cancer they have, Radiation Therapists Keri Beth Sexton and Nadine Jenkins, who operate the radiation machine and strive to make each patient as comfortable and relaxed as possible in a situation that is sometimes intimidating and a little frightening to them, and R.N. Sherri Jackson, who assists Dr. Karolewics and helps the patients with any and everything that pertains to their medications, therapy and physical and mental well-being. Each of them is dedicated to insuring the best possible treatment and out come for every patient.

“The staff has a wonderful rapport with one another, and refer to themselves as the ‘Lifefirst Family’,” Dr. Karolewics proudly pointed out. “They genuinely like each other and people can sense that. You never hear anyone say, ‘That’s not my job’ here.”  

 Dr. Karolewics has seen many of his plans and specific goals come to fruition. “We have new technologies and new planning software, a major investment which will allow us to provide the most advanced treatments equal to university centers such as the Kirklin Clinic," he said with pride. "When it comes to cancer treatment, it is our moral obligation to provide at least the same level of care, if not better, than what is given in larger cities like Birmingham and Huntsville.

"When we created Lifefirst, we developed our mission statement, 'To provide university level care in a family setting' and we have accomplished exactly that," he said, indicating with a wave of his hand the modern equipment and quiet ambiance of the facility.

“I’m very proud of what we have been able to do here, and very hopeful for the future of what we can accomplish,” he said.

In such a high stress profession, Dr. Karolewics has to find time for himself occasionally. He still flies some, although not as much as he would like. He and his wife, Dr. Vicki Hawsey-Karolewics, president of Wallace State Community College, get away occasionally to enjoy some time alone, far from crowds and their workaday worlds.

The couple is active in the community. Last year, they took dancing lessons in order to take part in the Relay For Life “Dancing With Our Stars” event. They both say that it was a lot of fun, and that they were happy to participate because of the worthwhile cause. Dr. Karolewics could actually see the benefits of his efforts through some of his patients’ eyes. “Several of them were very complimentary and they were all very supportive,” he said.

The Karolewics have an obvious mutual love and respect for one another, never letting their professional lives conflict or compete.

"I am blessed to have Vicki in my life. We enjoy doing so many things together," said Dr. Karolewics. "We both love scuba diving together and on a nice day we are often out riding our motorcycles," he said.

Both agree that they have found great enjoyment in their newest sporting activity, kite boarding. "We started kite boarding on a trip to Bonaire three years ago and have found it to be a real challenge and a lot of fun," he smiled.

Perhaps the insight of a wife tells a husband’s story best; “I recall not long after Vince and I began dating, I met a daughter of one of his patients who shared with me a story about how she had received a card and lengthy note from him after the passing of her mother,” said Vicki Hawsey-Karolewics. “I remember the feeling of amazement that he would take the time to write a personal note of expression to her in her time of grief. That told me a great deal about the kind of doctor he was, but also the kind of person he is. I never know his patients by name, but I always hear about the special moments, the hugs, smiles, laughter, garden treats, sweet treats, and battles that have been overcome. Constantly, I meet people in the community who have been his patients or related to his patients, and they always tell me how fortunate I am; this I know,” she said softly.

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