You could say Walter Hollis hasn't had the best of luck over the past few years when it comes to his health. He had five discs removed in his neck; he was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer; coronary heart disease led to two heart surgeries resulting in five stents; and he was most recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that required chemotherapy for treatment.
Or you could say he's the luckiest man alive, because he has triumphed over every diagnosis thrown at him.
"It would be easy to sit around and feel sorry for myself," says Hollis. "But really I'm one of the fortunate few."
Hollis, 66, retired in 2005 after working as an attorney for the NAACP. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and three young children.
Hollis' problems first began in 2003 with some pain in his neck. Tests revealed he needed emergency surgery to remove five discs to avoid permanent damage. The discs were replaced with a titanium plate, which Hollis says makes for some added complications getting through airport security, but besides that, he feels much better.
He thought he was on his way to better health, but in 2005 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"It was bad," says Hollis. He was a candidate for high-dose radiation, where a greater than normal amount of radiation is precisely directed at a tumor to avoid damaging healthy tissue.
It was a difficult journey, but the outcome was considered successful. However, before long, Hollis was overly fatigued and had shortness of breath. "I have 13 stairs in my house," he said. "I began to get tired just coming up them."
Hollis went to see his primary care physician, Dr. Michael Potter, who oversees all of his care. Potter, who practices at the UCSF Family Medicine Center at Lakeshore, referred him to a cardiologist.
"I took a treadmill stress test and they discovered I had 80 percent blockage in my right arteries," says Hollis. "Then I spoke with my cardiologist, and I was told I wasn't leaving the hospital. She ordered a wheelchair and told me they were going to put a stent in my heart. I thought she was kidding, but before I knew it I was being wheeled across the street."
In fact, Hollis had three stents inserted into his arteries. The small, metal tubes are left in the artery and prop it open to decrease the chances of it becoming narrow.
Three weeks later, Hollis found himself fatigued again and it was discovered he was in need of two additional stents to prevent a heart attack.
Hoping to be on the road to recovery, Hollis was still exhausted. Potter ran some tests, which revealed he was anemic. "There are many causes of anemia," says Potter. "We did some additional tests and I sent him to see a hematology/oncology doctor for a bone marrow test."
That test revealed Hollis had multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that develops in the blood where the body produces too much plasma or myeloma cells. These cells produce antibodies that the body doesn't need and can form tumors that cause other problems.
"I said, 'I can't believe this,'" said Hollis.
"Multiple myeloma is typically fairly serious," says Potter. "Until recently, there was not a great prognosis."
Oftentimes, the cancer metastasizes from the bone marrow to the bone itself. It does not appear Hollis' has, so he was treated with chemotherapy.
This was a case where having connections helps. Potter knew the doctor Hollis needed to see — Dr. Peter Sayre, a UCSF blood disorder specialist. Potter made sure Hollis knew the importance of following through to see Sayre.
"A big part of my job is coordinating care to make sure my patients get everything they need, to make sure nothing slips through the cracks," says Potter.
Potter says for Hollis, having a UCSF primary care physician has allowed him to have one person oversee all of his care and know and understand his extensive medical history — to follow up on tests and see the connections between his diagnoses. And it gives Hollis direct access to the best specialists in the country.
"I know what specialist to send him to and how to get the specialists to talk to each other," says Potter.
And for this, Hollis is grateful.
"I have the best doctors I know in the U.S.," says Hollis. "They really take care of me."
Prostate Cancer Center
1825 Fourth St., Fourth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-7171
Fax: (415) 353-7093
400 Parnassus Ave., Third Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143-0332
Phone: (866) 81-SPINE or
Neuro-spine Fax: (415) 353-2176
Ortho-spine Fax: (415) 353-4047