People to Watch
(page 8 of 11)
Cleveland W. Lewis Jr., M.D.
By: Dale McKnight
When Cleveland Lewis completed his medical studies and officially became a doctor, it was a family dream come true.
“My father was a biology teacher,” says Lewis, “and what he’d actually wanted to do was be a physician. He’ll be 80 this year; and back in those days, for an Afro-American male, the chances of becoming a physician were slim.
“So yes, he’s proud of me,” smiles Lewis.
Growing up in Wilson, N.C., Lewis focused on science and math as a young student. “I had a general idea I wanted to do medicine; the decision was made relatively early,” he recalls. He went on to Duke Medical School and eventually decided to specialize in thoracic surgery — the care and treatment of benign and malignant diseases of the chest.
“In medical school, I’d had some interest in cardiac and thoracic surgery — and like most people, you really don’t know what a career entails when you first make the choice.”
One key in helping him decide on his career path: “I had a mentor who was a cardiac surgeon; he offered me a research position in his laboratory for a year. That really tipped me over in terms of knowing, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” So, in his third year at Duke Medical School, Lewis opted to specialize in thoracic surgery.
It’s a demanding field that requires dual focus. “When you train for thoracic surgery, you have to train as a cardio-thoracic surgeon,” says Lewis, 42. “That means, when you get your board certification, you have to have training in heart surgery as well as lung surgery.”
After medical school, he completed a general surgery residency and a cardio-thoracic fellowship at Duke, plus an additional year in thoracic oncology and thoracic surgery. After practicing medicine in North Carolina, Lewis and his family moved to the Valley, and he joined the staff of St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Orange County in 2005.
Lewis has a passion for his work — he was key in creating one of the Valley’s first state-of-the-art thoracic surgery programs at the hospital. He treats patients with lung and esophageal cancer, as well as benign pulmonary disorders, pericardial disease, chest-wall abnormalities, and other conditions. He also implants and monitors pacemakers.
Lewis admits that certain aspects of his field can be especially demanding. “It’s not necessarily the individual surgeries. I think the most challenging part of the job, for me, is telling someone with advanced cancer that there’s really nothing else we can offer them,” he says. “That, and the initial diagnosis — to come out from surgery and have to talk to the patient’s family.”
He knows firsthand how grueling the experience can be. “A family member of mine had inoperable lung cancer,” and although another doctor treated his relative, Lewis notes, “No matter how long you do this, in the most challenging cases, when you have to come out and deliver the bad news, it never gets easier for a doctor.”
But he’s determined to do everything possible to relieve his patients’ pain and suffering. And now, as the recently named medical director of the brand-new $23 million Littman Cancer Center on the Cornwall campus of St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, he’s eager to work with the top-notch medical team in their state-of-the art facility.
The center features services such as high-tech TomoTherapy — a radiation process that minutely targets cancer cells, minimizing danger to surrounding healthy tissues — plus chemotherapy, extensive patient support, and future infusion services and physician offices to be added at the site. “The center offers a great opportunity to provide the highest level of treatment right here in the Hudson Valley,” Lewis says.
He’s also adamant about the importance of a multidisciplinary approach in medicine. “You can’t just look at cancer-care treatment as the surgeon or the oncologist or the radiation oncologist,” Lewis explains. “All those persons have to come together as a team. Then the patient can come to the center and have all their needs taken care of in one place — we’re looking forward to providing ‘one-stop shopping.’ ”
Despite his busy schedule — Lewis will continue his work as a thoracic surgeon in addition to his new duties at the Littman Center — he enjoys downtime with his wife and three kids (three boys, aged eight, six and one). "My children are my hobbies,” Lewis laughs. He tries to play basketball once a week and works out at the gym whenever possible. “I also like to cook — although I don’t get to do it as often as I’d like.”
And despite the demands of his medical career, Lewis says the rewards are immense. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of interacting with patients, especially oncology patients,” he says. “They have multiple needs: medical, emotional, psychological. I see myself as a ‘people person’ — I like to sit down with my patients and talk with them. From a lung cancer standpoint, for instance, survival or cure is considered five years. There’s nothing like having your patient come in at the five-year mark and they’re cancer free.”
He adds, “You don’t look at it from an egotistical standpoint; you look at it from the standpoint that you’re happy for the patient — happy that you were able to provide something for them that was a positive thing.”
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