March 8, 2019

Back From the Brink

John King with Drs. Arnaoutakis and Steliga

Konstantinos Arnaoutakis, M.D. (left), and Matthew Steliga, M.D., (right) shown with UAMS patient John King during a follow-up visit.

John King half joked that he should be the poster child for UAMS. At a healthy 6 feet 4 inches tall, he doesn’t quite fit the mold, but he’s sure he wouldn’t be alive today if he hadn’t come to UAMS.

Just a few months ago, the 62-year-old Bald Knob man’s substantial frame was slumped in a wheelchair as he got some bad news from Matthew Steliga, M.D., a surgeon specializing in lung cancer, esophageal cancer and other tumors of the chest.

King had come to UAMS for ear surgery, but a preoperative X-ray revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor on his right lung. Plans for his ear surgery were scrapped and he was fast-tracked to Steliga and other members of the lung cancer team at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Steliga told King the tumor would need to shrink significantly before it could be removed. King was referred to Konstantinos Arnaoutakis, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist specializing in lung cancer, and Vaneerat Ratanatharathorn, M.D., a radiation oncologist and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Before meeting with the two doctors, King nearly died from a collapsed lung. He labored to breathe and was too weak to walk, and Arnaoutakis was concerned that he might not survive the simultaneous treatment of radiation and chemotherapy. But Ratanatharathorn countered that King wouldn’t survive if the mass wasn’t reduced in size.

“Let’s do it,” King told them.

But first he had to survive another brush with death that resulted from a rare allergic reaction to a chemotherapy drug. As with his other near-death experience, King was impressed with the multiple doctors and nurses who showed the care and determination to save him.

Only minutes into his anaphylactic shock, he said, Arnaoutakis was at his bedside, despite having to come from his seventh-floor clinic in the Cancer Institute to the first floor where King was.

“He had to run, King said. That’s just one example. These people just plain care.

King also credits his wife, Donna, a registered nurse for 31 years, for helping him on the road to recovery. She has been his advocate, monitoring his medications and helping restore his strength and lung function with a proper diet and regular exercise.

“By the time I saw Dr. Steliga again, he didn’t recognize me,” King said. He said, “Are you really 6’4″? The last time he had seen me I was in a wheelchair.”

The radiation and chemotherapy had done their part, too, reducing the tumor to about half its size — small enough for Steliga to remove. After the surgery, Steliga had good news for King: The tumor was completely removed, 90 percent of it was dead tissue, and all his lymph nodes were negative for cancer.

A few months after the surgery, King was grateful.

“I have never been treated better; I have never been in better hands than I was at UAMS. It’s an absolute miracle that I’m alive.”

Lung Cancer at UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute

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