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Patient Goes From Siteman to Balloon Race in 24 Hours

Sept. 20, 2006 – Patty Frankovich may yet beat cancer at the Siteman Cancer Center, but at the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, she just couldn’t beat the weather.

Frankovichs High winds on Sept. 16 derailed what would have been an incredible turn of events. Frankovich would have had a brain tumor removed one day and flown in a hot-air balloon the next.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” she said of her unlikely trip.

Frankovich, 58, of Theodosia, Mo., is a lung cancer patient at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. She was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer on July 26 that had already metastasized to her brain. She has had 15 radiation therapy treatments to shrink the tumor in her brain, but on Sept. 15, she underwent the Gamma Knife procedure to remove the tumor.

“It’s an outpatient procedure, and the doctors said I’d be fine to fly,” said Frankovich.

The name Gamma Knife is a bit of misnomer because it doesn’t use a “knife” at all. It’s a machine that delivers 201 precisely focused beams of radiation to a targeted area of abnormal tissue within the patient’s head. The surrounding areas of the brain get very little exposure to radiation.

“The Gamma Knife can be a very aggressive way to treat various problems in the brain with few side effects,” said Eric Filiput, Gamma Knife operations manager at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The Gamma Knife of St. Louis at Barnes-Jewish Hospital is the only Gamma Knife in a 250-mile radius of St. Louis and one of only about 90 nationwide.

That sort of equipment led Frankovich to be transferred from her hospital in Arkansas to Barnes-Jewish. She told her family she was disappointed that she was not transported in a helicopter. “After that, I mentioned how I always wanted to fly in a hot-air balloon,” she said.

Her children sent e-mails to family and friends asking if anyone had contacts with hot-air balloon pilots. The message wound up in the inbox of Denise Bizenberger, special projects assistant at the Siteman Cancer Center.  Barnes-Jewish Hospital is a sponsor of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race and in turn is given a spot on a hot-air balloon.  After the e-mail was sent around, Frankovich was asked if she would be willing to take the open seat in the Barnes-Jewish balloon. 

“I’ve always wanted to do this, so I said yes right away,” said Frankovich.

However, high winds at the balloon race limited only 30 of about 70 balloons to fly. Even the Energizer Bunny balloon couldn’t get going and going.

It led Barnes-Jewish balloon pilot Winifred “Winnie” Durham to tell Frankovich and her family that a flight at the race wasn’t in the cards. “With winds this high, it’s a really rough landing, and I am just not comfortable taking someone up on their first ride – especially going through what she’s going through – on a flight like this,” she said.

Durham promised she would make arrangements to get Frankovich in a balloon soon.

Still, it wasn’t a wasted day for Frankovich. With husband Ron and a few of her children by her side, she watched balloons take off from the Barnes-Jewish Hospital tent. She wore a custom T-shirt her family made for her. It featured a sonogram of her soon-to-be-born grandchild with the baby’s hand signaling back “I Love You.”

“I am determined to beat this,’ said Franovich. “I have too much to look forward to.”