Sticking with things for the long haul is part of Patty Piasecki’s DNA. Since joining RUSH in 1979, she has spent most of her tenure working with Steven Gitelis, MD, on the orthopedic oncology team. Together, they’ve changed and saved the lives of thousands of people with bone and soft tissue cancers.
“Patty is a critical part of the program,” Gitelis said. “She’s very much into the personal lives of these patients, and I think that’s just great care. That’s really important for both outcomes and patient satisfaction.”
When Piasecki isn’t caring for patients and answering their calls morning, noon or night, she’s supporting cancer research. Since 2012 Piasecki has served as team captain for Swim Across America’s Chicago Open Water Swim. Through her dedicated support of the annual event over the past 11 years, Piasecki has helped the organization raise more than $2 million to support cancer research, patient care and clinical trials at RUSH Cancer Center.
‘A Heartwarming Event’
Piasecki’s daughter is a swimmer, so it was initially assumed that she would have the knowledge and expertise necessary to guide the effort with Swim Across America, or SAA. In reality Piasecki was not a strong swimmer, but her success as team captain has been fueled by a commitment and passion for what the swim supports: meeting the needs of oncology patients and programs by funding innovative research.
Piasecki is also inspired by the atmosphere at Ohio Street Beach during the swim.
“It’s a very heartwarming event,” she said. “Everyone’s happy, friendly and collegial. No one judges you if you’re a slow swimmer or don’t have the best wetsuit or brand of goggles. Everyone’s out there for the same reason — to raise money for leading-edge cancer research and patient care at RUSH.”
Funds raised at the Chicago Open Water Swim support a broad spectrum of cancer research. RUSH researchers — who regularly attend the event — can pitch their ideas to SAA. Some of the researchers who received seed money from the organization, such as Faraz Bishehsari, MD, PhD, have gone on to obtain funding for larger scale projects from the National Institutes of Health.
“How can you beat that,” Piasecki said. “At the end of the year, we know how much money was raised and how funds were allocated to each project. That’s a very objective way to see your donations and your friends’ and family’s donations.”
While Piasecki has seen direct benefits from SAA to RUSH’s orthopedic oncology program, as well as metastatic bone disease, she says the overall funding is what’s most important.
“When you’re taking care of cancer, you’re just happy to see any research happening,” she said.
To ensure the continued success of the Chicago Open Water Swim, Piasecki puts her team on the ledger right away each year to encourage others to register. She raises funds and recruits swimmers right up until the event — with her daughter being a regular for 11 years now.
While Piasecki has gotten into Lake Michigan in the past, she prefers to connect with people on the shore, knowing most everyone has a link to cancer. Many have become friends.
“It’s like a big beach picnic,” she said. “Everyone’s happy. It’s not easy to go downtown on a Saturday at 6:30 in the morning, but when you get there, it’s so worth it.”
A long-term commitment to helping RUSH get ‘bigger and better’
First working in an inpatient unit that saw orthopedics, ENT, thoracic surgery and neurosurgery patients, Piasecki went on to pursue her master’s degree from the RUSH College of Nursing, while working at RUSH as a staff nurse on weekends.
She says it’s a combination of the practice, patients and university that have kept her at RUSH for so long. In particular, RUSH’s brand of nursing — and the respect nurses get within the institution — served first as a strong draw for her and later as a reason to stay for more than 40 years.
“RUSH is very proactive for patients,” she said. “And nurses have always been at the forefront of the team. When you’re trained on that, you don’t want to dip your foot into another pool.”
In addition to her loyalty and commitment, Gitelis notes that Piasecki is special because she is hands-on when it comes to offering compassionate care. She is the go-to person, the first call patients make.
Michael Hoadley, who was successfully treated by the orthopedic oncology team at RUSH after being diagnosed with a rare bone tumor, saw firsthand the important role Piasecki plays.
“She’s a point guard,” he said. “Everybody needs somebody to keep everyone communicating — and Patty does that.”
For Piasecki, the hardest part of her job is when treatment is unsuccessful, despite the team’s best efforts. But she has also attended patients’ weddings and celebrated the births of their children. And she regularly gets calls from former patients and families who want to stay connected.
“That’s joyful,” she said. “It becomes a family.”
Over the years, Piasecki has witnessed changes at RUSH, including the construction of many of the buildings on the medical center’s campus.
“Orthopedics and cancer have been elevated to powerhouse levels,” she said. “But little has changed at the core of what makes RUSH special. If anything, we really have just gotten bigger and better.”
Interested in joining Patty in raising funds for cancer research at RUSH with Swim Across America? It’s not too late! While this year’s swim has passed, you can still make a gift to help make waves to fight cancer.