Atrium Health Creates a Life-Saving Game Plan

News | 8 months ago

Atrium Health Creates a Life-Saving Game Plan

For retired NFL player, Ed Reynolds, joining a new team – one that saved his life after a stage 4 cancer diagnosis – was so important. Hear about former NFL player Ed Reynolds’ life-saving journey supported by Atrium Health and the NFL Dedicated Hospital Network Program.

During Ed Reynolds’ 10 years as an active player in the NFL, he had immediate access to some of the best doctors in the country. 

“I had all of my medical needs addressed right there in the locker room,” Ed says. “An athletic trainer, primary care doctor, cardiologist, orthopedic doctor. We had every doctor we could possibly need right at our fingertips.”

After he retired from the sport in 1993, Ed admits that he grew lax with his medical care and took his health for granted. After all, he was a former professional athlete with an active lifestyle who regularly hit the gym and felt fine. While he had access to team physicians during his playing career, Ed didn’t prioritize finding a primary care provider or going for regular preventive screenings; until the NFL Dedicated Hospital Network Program (the “Program” or “NFL DHN”) was established in September of 2021. 

The Program focuses on the importance of preventive care and connects eligible former NFL players with high-quality medical care providers in every NFL city. It provides eligible former NFL players with benefits including preventive care, primary medical care and mental health services up to certain annual maximums, where applicable. Atrium Health was selected by the Carolina Panthers as the partner of choice and participating health system for the NFL DHN in the Charlotte region. Because Atrium Health was the closest Health System Partner in proximity to where Ed currently resides, Atrium Health became his next team – and the one that saved his life.

Continuing Care for Players in their Post-NFL Lives

The NFL DHN is a first-of-its-kind health and wellness program for eligible former NFL players. Former NFL players have access to Atrium Health’s expert care to support their wellness beyond their playing careers. 

When a former NFL player becomes eligible for the Program, their course of care starts with a call to the Cigna Dedicated Concierge Team to identify their health care needs and desired health system partner. Following their call to the concierge team, players connect with a dedicated clinical care manager at their health system partner of choice who helps them navigate their care. Ed’s clinical care manager was Pam Black, registered nurse with Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute, and the two developed a close bond.

“Entering a health care system can feel overwhelming and I help patients break down the pieces into smaller, manageable parts,” Black says. “It means a lot to me to be a clinical navigator because I enjoy helping people.”

Black coordinated an appointment for Ed with Dr. Anthony Martin at Atrium Health Musculoskeletal Institute, who is a primary care/sports medicine physician for players in the NFL Dedicated Hospital Network. Ed's first appointment with Martin revealed a cardiac concern. Even though cardiology isn't covered directly under the Program's benefits, Pam and the Cigna Dedicated Concierge Team partnered to connect him to a cardiologist in the system, Dr. Dermot Phelan with Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.  Once his heart condition was managed, Black then scheduled an appointment for Ed to have a routine colonoscopy using the Program’s preventive care benefit with Dr. Brittany Seminara, a gastroenterologist at Atrium Health Gastroenterology and Hepatology. That screening became anything but routine.

During the colonoscopy, Seminara found a mass that she recognized as adenocarcinoma, a cancer that develops from cells in the lining of the colon. In the procedure room, while Ed was still asleep, she began to formulate what she would tell Ed and his wife. She knew that once they learned about the cancer, they should also know that Atrium Health had a gameplan to treat it. From there, the team worked together to ensure that Ed continued to have best-in-class care as he went against his toughest competitor yet: cancer.

“Dr. Seminara took my degree of anxiousness down a whole lot,” Ed says. “She started telling me this wonderful game plan, saying, ‘This is what we're going to do and I’ve called an excellent colleague right here in Charlotte.’ And boom, she had next steps. That was a huge relief.”

Ed was in stage 4 colon cancer. Before the surgery to remove it, Ed received an innovative form of chemotherapy that delivers treatment directly to the distant tumors through a pump. Atrium Health is one of just two health systems in the state that offers this treatment. Not only was Ed able to get a leading-edge form of chemotherapy, but he was able to get it close to home. Black went beyond her role as a liaison for the NFL DHN and connected Ed to treatments at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, providing him with some of the best oncology physicians in the region and saving him travel time.

“This treatment allows us to deliver high-dose chemotherapy to the liver to treat malignant tumors with minimal side effects,” says Dr. Perry Shen, one of Ed’s oncologists at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. “Ed had a very positive attitude, and it is a privilege to take care of him.”

Because his chemotherapy appointments were so close to home, Ed jokes, they were also closer to his favorite restaurants. He’d celebrate the end of each chemotherapy treatment with a stop for something good to eat. 

“If someone's diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and they go online to look at the prognosis, it is not a good prognosis. But these groundbreaking cancer treatments for advanced disease are prolonging patients' lives,” Seminara says. “That's what really matters.”

When Ed finished his last chemotherapy treatment and rang the bell, he sent a picture of the moment to Black.

“I really appreciated the fact he thought enough of me to include me in that moment,” Black says. “It was really exciting for me, too.”

Now, Ed’s finished his chemotherapy and had a successful surgery. He’ll have a follow-up colonoscopy in a year through the NFL DHN to continue monitoring his health.

A Team to Lean on at Atrium Health

During all of Ed’s unexpected health challenges – cardiac arrhythmia and colon cancer – he was part of a team. Doctors across facilities and specialties shared information electronically while Black kept Ed aware of each step - providing coordinated care.

“He had a team at Atrium Health: a primary care/sports medicine doctor, a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, a surgical oncologist and an oncologist. It's extraordinary care that we offer to all of our patients here in the North Carolina region,” Seminara says. “Health care is a team sport.”

And perhaps few people understand the importance of a close-knit team more than a former NFL player.

“Due to Mr. Reynolds’s background as a professional athlete, he realized the importance of a team approach to fight his cancer,” says Dr. Caio Max S. Rocha Lima, another one of Ed’s oncologists at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. “It takes a village to provide high-level cancer care. I’m positive Mr. Reynolds felt that the multi-disciplinary care team was highly invested in his health.”

That team approach supported Ed through surprise diagnoses, as well as the challenges – and the victories – that followed. Although a colonoscopy through the NFL DHN’s Preventive Care benefit helped identify the cancer, Atrium Health went beyond their role with the Program to continue supporting Ed. Atrium Health made it a priority to ensure that Ed was referred to the best specialists for his cancer treatment.

“We wanted to create a team, just like when I was playing football. Back then, I had the best doctors. Atrium Health is the best, too. Everything that went on during my cancer treatment, Dr. Martin, Dr. Shen and Dr. Seminara knew because they were all part of the Atrium Health system,” Ed says. “I'm absolutely here today because of the plan that was put in place and the immediacy of it.”

Note: Some services mentioned in this article may not have been covered through the NFL Dedicated Hospital Network Program and were a result of additional referrals through the Program.