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Idaho Voices

Cancer care for area residents has come a long way

Sat., March 7, 2009, midnight

It wasn’t too long ago that a cancer patient living in Sandpoint had to travel to Coeur d’Alene for all of his or her appointments and treatments. But a lot in this community has changed over the last decade, and that includes cancer care.

Deb Schoonover is a nurse at the Sandpoint clinic for Kootenai Cancer Center, formerly North Idaho Cancer Center. When she was hired at Kootenai Medical Center in 2001, Schoonover recalls Leslie Daniels, who was then the director of the Cancer Center, telling her it was her dream to one day open a satellite office in Sandpoint. That dream, driven by the increase in demand for services, quickly turned into a reality.

Shortly thereafter Schoonover and Kootenai Cancer Center oncologist Dr. Alan Grosset began working in Sandpoint two days a week.

“At that time about 20 to 25 percent of our patients in Coeur d’Alene were from Bonner and Boundary counties,” said Schoonover. And it didn’t take long before their office became extremely busy.

“We had three infusion chairs in our old office and when we took over the conference room we had four or five total,” said Schoonover.

In 2006, Grosset returned full time to the Coeur d’Alene office and Dr. Thomas Leavitt was hired to run the Sandpoint clinic. At that time the center was open three days a week, but still not everyone who received chemotherapy could receive their treatments in Sandpoint.

“We couriered the drugs from Coeur d’Alene,” said Schoonover. “If they (the medicines) weren’t going to be stable (during transport) we couldn’t administer the chemotherapy up here.”

Furthermore, added Schoonover, the patient was required to complete their lab work a full day ahead of their chemotherapy treatment.

“Otherwise if their labs came back and showed they couldn’t have a treatment, the drugs (that were brought up from Coeur d’Alene) had to be disposed of,” said Schoonover.

But that all changed in June 2007 when the Sandpoint clinic moved into its present location in Bonner General Hospital. Now open five days a week and employing about 15 people, the clinic is able to treat more patients than it has in the past. It has six chairs and two beds and Schoonover said because they have a full-time pharmacist who mixes most of the chemotherapy drugs onsite, they can avoid the logistics involved in transporting the chemotherapy agents from Coeur d’Alene.

Schoonover said that many patients still travel to Coeur d’Alene for their treatments, but that is mostly because of a prior relationship they had with a doctor who practices there. Also, anyone who receives radiation must travel to Coeur d’Alene because radiation treatments are not available in the area north of Coeur d’Alene. But for those who are able to receive their chemotherapy treatments in Sandpoint, it is a bright light in what can be a very dark place.

Sandpoint resident Donna Rokstad was diagnosed with cancer in August 2002. During her treatments Rokstad traveled to Coeur d’Alene for four rounds of chemotherapy, 33 radiation treatments.

“I was very fortunate because I had friends who always went with me, but had it not been for them it would have been very lonely,” said Rokstad. “Had I been able to get my treatments in Sandpoint, I could have had friends stop by and visit me. It would have made things a lot easier.”

Schoonover said she witnesses so much more than just the convenience factor among her patients. There is a very special bond that is formed among not only the patients who sit side by side each week as they receive their treatments, but there is also a bond between the patients and staff as well.

“Here, patients really know each other,” said Schoonover. “It’s your next-door neighbors and your friends (who are coming in for treatment). It really adds a whole new dimension.”

Schoonover worked in Spokane for 10 years and while she said she had great relationships with her patients, it wasn’t a small town like Sandpoint so rarely did she run into them at the store, a restaurant, or other places she frequented.

“The nature of oncology is that you build a strong relationship and bond with your patients,” said Schoonover. “And for the patients, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to receive your treatment in your home town.”

Rokstad could not agree more. “It’s a place where friends meet,” she said. “We come together and have a special bond.”

Free night skiing at Schweitzer Mountain Resort

If you are looking for a great way to spend a Saturday evening, head to Schweitzer Mountain Resort today for a free night of skiing. The event, Tom Sherry’s Ski Free Food Drive, will benefit Bonner Community Food Bank. Each person who donates three nonperishable food items will receive a free lift ticket for five hours of night skiing this evening at Schweitzer.

According to Alice Wallace, the executive director for Sandpoint’s local food bank, the demand for food bank services was up 46 percent in 2008 over the previous year.

“This is a tough time of year for the food bank,” said Wallace. “We appreciate so much Schweitzer Resort and the skiers’ donations.”

The event begins at 3 p.m., and skiers and boarders can bring their donations and enjoy five hours of free outdoor fun.

For more information go to

Contact correspondent Patty Hutchens by e-mail at

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