After more than a decade of lobbying and fundraising, the late Sam Bruno's dream of a PET scanner for northeastern Ontario has finally come true.
Now the purpose-built suite overlooking Lily Creek at Health Sciences North's Ramsey Lake Health Centre that houses the piece of diagnostic equipment he and his family fought so hard for has been named in his memory.
A ceremony at the hospital Wednesday morning marked the official opening of the new “Sam Bruno PET Scanner Suite.”
In celebration, Sam's brother Frank Bruno led those at the event in a toast with glasses of sambuca, an anise-flavoured Italian liqueur.
Sam — who was of Italian heritage, hence the sambuca — “lobbied a lot of people over the table with a little drink of sambuca,” said Frank Bruno.
It was 11 years ago while undergoing cancer treatment that Sam Bruno made a complaint to the Ontario ombudsman that PET scans — a nuclear medicine imaging test — were not a fully insured service in the province. At the time, they were only used in limited clinical trials.
When PET scans were later covered under OHIP for everyone who needed them, Bruno, who'd had two PET scans in Southern Ontario during the course of his illness, made it his mission to bring one of the machines to northeastern Ontario.
Northeastern Ontario was, until recently, the only area of the province that did not have its own PET scanner.
Sam passed away from colorectal cancer at the age of 55 on July 15, 2010, but his family set up the Sam Bruno PET Steering Committee to make his dream come true.
Communities across the northeast eventually contributed $4.3 million to the project.
The Ministry of Health and Long Term Care provided $4.6 million toward construction costs for the PET suite and up to $1.6 million in annual operating funding.
Sam Bruno exemplified how “if you had enough time and enough willpower and determination” someone could “move a mountain” or “chop down a tree with a spoon,” said Frank Bruno during his comments at the ceremony.
It seems Frank himself is capable of channeling his brother's fierce determination in fighting for what he believes in.
Once he even missed his plane after spotting Eric Hoskins, Health and Long-Term Care Minister under the former Liberal government in Ontario, at the airport, and cornering him at the shoe-shine station to lobby him about the PET scanner.
Fortunately, he found an attentive ear. “It really was then that we really started to see things move,” Frank said.
“For our family, today is the end of Sam's journey and our journey,” he added.
“He can finally rest and we can finally move forward, knowing that while this is the end of our journey, it's only the beginning for so many others that have cancer diagnosis.
“We are hopeful the battle Sam won will help others improve their odds of survival and improve the quality of their care. This is a huge win for the people of the northeast.”
Brenda Tessaro, another key member of the PET steering committee, issued a few thank yous in her remarks.
One was to Nickel Belt MPP and NDP health critic France Gélinas, who has been fighting alongside Sam Bruno and the PET steering committee since the beginning, and Glenn Thibeault, the former MPP for Sudbury and Wynne cabinet minister, who had Hoskins' ear.
And, like several speakers, Tessaro thanked the late Sudbury journalist Carol Mulligan, who reported extensively on the PET scanner issue before she passed away suddenly in August.
“Carol Mulligan, who is presently hanging out with Sam and watching down on all of this, was our little spitfire journalist,” Tessaro said. “She made Sam's cause her cause.”
The many speakers at the ceremony also included the area's two MPPs, Gélinas and Jamie West, Mayor Brian Bigger, Robin Martin, parliamentary assistant to Health Minister Christine Elliot, HSN president Dominic Giroux, and Northern Cancer Foundation board chair Shayne Smith.
Dr. Ryan Carlson, a radiation oncologist with the Northeast Cancer Centre, shared with the audience the importance of a PET scanner to his patients.
More than 200 PET scans have already been performed in Sudbury since the machinery was installed this past spring.
The cancer centre anticipates performing 1,100 scans in the first year alone, which should result in saving a total of 880,000 kilometres in travel for patients in Northeastern Ontario.
“It's going to be saving a lot of travel for our patients,” Carlson said, in an interview with Sudbury.com.
“They've been getting PET scans, but they had to travel to Southern Ontario to be able to access that.
“So having it here saves a lot of kilometres of travel for patients, and gives us the immediate access to the imaging and immediate access to the PET expertise as well.”
Carlson explains that PET scans help oncologists to see exactly where the cancer is located in a patient. They are injected with a radioactive sugar compound that's taken up by the cancer cells.
“Imagine looking at a forest full of fir trees and looking for a spruce tree,” he said.
“It can be very challenging. But if you imagine that that same spruce tree is lit up like a Christmas tree, then it's much easier to see, and that's how easy it can be to detect cancer from a PET scan."