A healthy partnership

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Linda Cornutt, a part-time Whitefish resident and community volunteer, is undergoing treatment for cancer and severe anemia at North Valley Hospital and Kalispell Regional Healthcare. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Linda Cornutt counts her blessings.

She counts every day she is able to do the things she enjoys — fish, read, needlepoint, taking walks and playing mahjong. She also likes to volunteer — she can often been seen wearing a fish costume raising funds for the Great Fish Community Challenge for the North Valley Hospital Foundation.

And Cornutt counts Whitefish among her blessings. She splits her time between her home in Texas and Whitefish, calling herself a “Montexan,” but says she’d rather be in Whitefish most of the time.

So when she was diagnosed with small lyphocytic lymphoma and hemolytic anemia last winter while in Texas, she wanted to know immediately if she could do her chemotherapy treatment in Montana.

Last winter she came to Montana and began working with medical oncologist and hematologist Dr. Jose Ness at Kalispell Regional Healthcare. She is being treated for the cancer that affects white blood cells along with severe anemia.

Throughout the treatment process she has moved between North Valley Hospital and Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

“Dr. Ness knew I lived in Whitefish so when I needed cell booster shots he would order them for at North Valley Hospital or lab work he’d order it for North Valley,” she said. “I’ve had treatment, radiology, infusions, lab work, imaging at Whitefish and Kalispell — I’ve been going back and forth.”

North Valley Hospital officially become an affiliate under the umbrella of Kalispell Regional Healthcare system in spring 2016.

Cornutt said she knew that there was quality healthcare right in Flathead Valley, but prior to her diagnosis she couldn’t have anticipated how North Valley and Kalispell Regional would work so seamlessly together to provide that care.

“I’ve been impressed with how they’ve worked together for my benefit,” she said. “Cancer has been a journey where I’ve met the nicest people who have done so many caring things for me.”

Mornings can be a bit of a challenge for Cornutt.

Since she began treatment for the cancer and anemia roughly six months ago, she sometimes takes a little longer to get ready for the day. She tries to schedule appointments later and knows it’s important to conserve her energy.

“Saving that 45 minutes of time to drive by being able to visit the infusion department at North Valley has been wonderful,” she said. “Three to four times per week I’m at one of the hospitals. When I need a cell booster shot, Dr. Ness is right on top of it and it’s no big deal for them to call North Valley.”

Ness says it is advantageous to have patients cared for close to home.

“Geographic proximity reduces the burden imposed by travel and minimizes an element of physical and psychological fatigue that often permeates cancer care,” he said. “Achieving the delivery of high quality, cutting edge care in a safe and effective manner at a site close to home summarizes an ideal framework for the delivery of health care to all cancer patients.”

Ness says it’s common for a patient to receive chemotherapy at Kalispell Regional Medical Center and then get supportive care — such as hydration and injections to support the immune system at North Valley Hospital. Ness has seen several patients who have made use of the partnership and have benefited from the cooperative relationship.

“When a patient is struggling with cancer, it is crucial that he or she receive care in the environment that creates the most comfort and ease,” Ness said. “Depending on the patient’s preferences and network of support, such an environment may be best attained by using a combination of both hospital settings in our community.”

Kalispell Regional Health Care already included two hospitals, the Kalispell Regional Medical Center and The HealthCenter, when North Valley joined the system. The move integrated the organizations both clinically and financially.

North Valley CEO Chris Thomas also see the benefit for patients.

“Now that we have the affiliation, we are able advocate for our patients in a greater way by having access to resources available throughout the system,” Thomas said. “Prior to the affiliation, we were sometimes limited in services that we could offer to our patients.”

It’s a benefit that Thomas sees as only improving over time.

“As the system matures, I anticipate that we will collaboratively partner to establish a healthcare system that our community will have confidence and pride in because of the quality and services available across the healthcare continuum,” she said.

Cornutt and her late husband Doc began visiting the Flathead Valley in the early 2000s. More than a decade ago they built a house in Whitefish and visited as much as possible.

“My husband used to say visiting Whitefish put 10 years back on his life,” she says with a laugh.

Cornutt volunteered with the Glacier Symphony and Corral and that connection led her to volunteering on the North Valley Hospital Foundation Board joining in December 2016 before she began receiving treatment.

She had a few house guests over the years who ended up visiting North Valley’s emergency room so she knew there was quality health care, but she didn’t know the extent until she became a patient herself.

Beyond the cooperation between the hospitals in Whitefish and Kalispell, Cornutt says she’s been impressed by the attention she has received as a part-time resident of Whitefish.

“I’m not a full-time resident,” she said. “They didn’t have to get involved, but they made an investment in caring about me.”

She points out that her medical journey began at the Sammons Cancer Hospital at Baylor hospital in Dallas, Texas, where her doctor never had concerns about her undergoing treatment at hospitals under the Kalispell Regional Healthcare umbrella.

“Both the residents and visitors of the Flathead Valley are blessed to have these facilities where they can be confident in the quality of care they receive with the best personal attention,” she said.

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