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Huntsman Cancer Institute's latest expansion is evidence of hope that a cure will be found

SALT LAKE CITY — It's already called the Ritz-Carlton of hospitals, and the newest expansion will nearly double the Huntsman Cancer Institute's capacity for high-end cancer care.

And if it is up to founder Jon Huntsman Sr., it will keep growing "until we've found cures for cancer."

"There should always be a crane building new buildings until this horrible disease has been eradicated," he said Wednesday.

Huntsman, 74, already has pumped more than $300 million into the facility and other efforts to study cancer, which kills more than 550,000 Americans each year.

The latest addition incorporates 156,000 square feet of new construction, including a wellness and survivorship center to focus on the emotional needs of cancer survivors; a learning center, containing materials in both English and Spanish; as well as outpatient clinics to continue growing the patient treatment base, which currently hovers around 60,000 outpatient visits a year.

It also boosts the number of patient rooms by 50 and adds a 25-bed section dedicated to blood and bone marrow transplant, which was formerly housed at the neighboring University Hospital. There are more examination rooms and additional operating spaces, as well as new imaging facilities and an expanded pharmacy.

And all of it is put together with the finest of window dressing, no detail left untended.

"(It) shows the world that the people of Utah really do care about finding a cures for cancer," Huntsman said.

"One of the ingredients for healing to an individual who has cancer is the surrounding facilities and the environment in which they are placed," he said. "If one's emotional feeling is such that they have hope that they can overcome this disease … all of a sudden, they say, 'I've got hope. I'm going to make it. This is the most beautiful place in the world.' And that's all part of the therapy of getting better."

Huntsman said hope comes from quality, and the quality exhibited at the Huntsman Cancer Institute is not only in the professionals who deliver patient care, it's in the meals that can be ordered at any time of the day, it's in the fine furnishings that fill the rooms and hallways, and in the artwork on the walls. Hope is also found in the spectacular valley views and the floor-to-ceiling windows.

"We could really expand two or three or four times more than we are today, just to take care of our patient load," Huntsman said.

The four-time cancer survivor said he would love to be able to help everyone in need of the specialized, multiple-approach cancer care offered in Utah.

And it really is top notch, according to Utah County resident Carolyn Owens, who was told by other doctors she had an incurable form of cancer. Three years and two stem cell transplants later, Owens said she feels "as good as I've felt in years."

"I just believe I wouldn't be here today without this institute," she said.

Huntsman said that despite offers of funding matches elsewhere, he built the hospital in Salt Lake City because of the proximity it would have to the extensive genealogical libraries kept by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With the hospital's primary emphasis on genetic cancers, Huntsman felt that research efforts would benefit greatly from the record base.

Finding a cure to genetic cancers, he said, would eliminate 40 percent of the more than 200 types of cancer in the world today.

"It's an enormous job we have," Huntsman said, adding that he views curing cancer as one of the "great problems of the world," including achieving world peace and absolving the national debt.

State budgets, he said, should be used to support the cause — as owners of the facility — but to date, the only money going into building the hospital has come from donations, most of them from the Huntsman family.

"We seem to have our priorities wrong in much of what we do in America," Huntsman said. "If the average American understood that 550,000 fellow Americans are dying each year because of cancer, perhaps there would be a greater call to arms. This is the most insidious disease known to man, and yet we give it very little attention and very, very little money."

But it is at the heart of everything Huntsman does.

And it shows.

Dr. Michael Deininger, chief of hematology at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, said that with a demanding procedure such as that of transplants, "every little thing counts."

The specifications of the new blood and marrow transplant unit, he said, puts the program on par with the best programs in the nation.

"It's not just a normal patient ward," Deininger said.

The wing has HEPA-filtered air flows and positive pressurized rooms that keep infection levels nearly flatlined.

"It's designed to be as comfortable as possible," he said.

From a doctor's perspective, Deininger said such details "make all the difference."

The $110 million expansion, located at the northeast of the existing hospital building, was designed by Architectural Nexus and built by Okland Construction. A ribbon-cutting and dedication is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, and the new wing opens to patients on Oct. 31. Officials expect it to be full within weeks.

"Since 2005, we have been operating at full capacity in inpatient beds, operating rooms and outpatient clinics," said Mary Beckerle, hospital CEO.

"The hospital expansion provides further opportunity to bring the most promising research discoveries to the patient's bedside," Beckerle said. "One of Huntsman Cancer Institute's guiding principles is that research is the key to defeat cancer, and translating that research into clinical applications is at the core of what we want to accomplish (here)."

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