Early morning activity is commonplace on weekdays at Gastrointestinal Associates’ Weisgarber Road office because people who have fasted for screening tests want to get them finished as soon as possible. However, GIA was a beehive of activity Saturday before dawn as a group of about 50 people who also had been fasting arrived for a health screening – one that could ultimately save their lives.
The almost 50 uninsured or underinsured Knoxvillians received free screening colonoscopies, the gold standard diagnostic tool to prevent colon cancer, during GIA’s fifth Annual Screening Colonoscopy Day 2014. InterFaith Health Clinic, The Free Medical Clinic of America in Knoxville and primary care physicians referred working uninsured or underinsured patients to the program, which provides the lifesaving screenings to those who cannot afford the test.
The reasons Dr. Bergein “Gene” Overholt and his physician colleagues at GIA and The Endoscopy Center founded the program are twofold – to provide the vital screenings to those in need and also to raise community awareness about preventing colorectal cancer, the second-deadliest cancer. While 50 screenings may not seem like a lot, these tests, unlike routine health checks, require fasting, preparation and anesthesia. For that reason, performing 50 screenings in one morning requires a team of 80 physicians, anesthesia personnel, pathologists, nurses and support staff all working at peak efficiency.
“We are so proud to mark the fifth year of this lifesaving program and are thankful to be able to provide this service for people who otherwise probably would not be screened,” Overholt said. “It’s heartbreaking to have patients come in who already have colon cancer and hear them say that they knew they needed the screening, but put if off because they didn’t have insurance to pay for it.”
On average, 40-50 percent of those screened have polyps, or abnormal cell growths that can develop into colon cancer. Any polyps discovered during colonoscopies were removed and sent for pathology examination. This year, the percentage of patients who had polyps removed was more than 50 percent. One patient had seven polyps detected and removed. One 61-year-old woman having her first screening had a very large, precancerous polyp removed that would likely have become malignant within a year or so.
“Colon cancer can be cured in 90 percent of cases if diagnosed early before symptoms develop,” Overholt said. “An increased awareness of the vital importance of this screening has helped drive down the death rate from colon cancer by 20 percent in the past two decades.”
Margaret Shelton, 53, of Kingston, said she was on the program’s waiting list at InterFaith Health Clinic for two years. When she was called to see if she still wanted the screening, she said, “You betcha. I won’t miss it for anything.” Shelton was relieved to hear the doctor say that no polyps had been found during her test. She urged others to get screened as well, despite the fact that the test preparation is not pleasant.
“Never, ever fear having the test. That is what keeps people from doing it, but you never know what might be growing inside of your body,” Shelton said. “It’s the most wonderful thing in the world for people to give up their time on a Saturday to help people.”
Patient Malcolm Moore of Knoxville said at 56 he knew he was overdue for a screening colonoscopy, but he had no insurance. He said he felt fortunate to have had only three small polyps removed.
“I’ve tried to thank everyone I see for volunteering to do this,” he said.
Generally, the guidelines recommend people have their first colonoscopy at age 50 (nine of 10 colon cancer diagnoses are in those 50 or older) and then once every 10 years. However, those with higher risk of colorectal cancer may need to begin screening at 40, and the recommended age for African Americans is 45.
Sponsor partners Premier Surgical Associates and Tennova will provide any surgical procedures needed.
Screening Colonoscopy Day 2014 sponsors included: American Cancer Society, Anesthesia Associates of Knoxville, Boston Scientific, Braintree Laboratories, The Endoscopy Center, The Free Medical Clinic, InterFaith Health Clinic, Premier Surgical Associates and Tennova.
About Gastrointestinal Associates:
Gastrointestinal Associates is one of the Southeast’s leading GI practices and is the only GI practice in Knoxville that operates three licensed and certified endoscopic ambulatory surgery centers in the north, central and west areas of Knoxville and Knox County. For more information, visit https://www.gihealthcare.com