Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Friday, April 27, 2018

HARTFORD – Curtis D. Robinson was horrified. Men were dying who did not need to die. So, earlier this year, he decided to do something about it.

Mr. Robinson, a Hartford businessman and board member of St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, also happens to be a black man who survived prostate cancer in 1997, thanks to health insurance, timely surgery and treatment. When he noticed that a disproportionate number of black men were coming to the emergency room at St. Francis with elevated PSA readings, he became alarmed. High levels of PSA – prostate-specific antigens, proteins produced by cells of the prostate gland – often, but not always, indicate prostate cancer.

"They were literally dying," he said. "Literally dying."

With a $1 million gift in February, Mr. Robinson co-founded the Curtis D. Robinson Men’s Health Institute, a first-of-its-kind St. Francis Hospital outreach program designed to address the disparities of prostate cancer among men, particularly African-Americans, who are uninsured or underinsured. The institute is also supported by a $472,533 grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, co-founder of the institute and chief of surgery at the hospital, said that once a week he or Dr. Carl Gjertson, a urologist, goes to a Hartford-area location where men are likely to gather. The doctor shows an educational slide show and performs prostate cancer screenings for free.

"But the difference between our program and many hospital programs is, it’s not just a screening program," he said. "We’re not looking to bring all comers in and test them, because that’s been proven not to work. We’re targeted at men at highest risk. That’s the African-American men or men with other risk factors like family history."

It doesn’t end with testing. It doesn’t end with surgery. "If you have no insurance, this is where Curtis’s million-dollar contribution comes in, to provide men medical care for the remainder of the man’s life, to take care of his prostate cancer condition," Dr. Steinberg said.

Lawrence S. Pertillar, a black man in his early 60s, is living proof that the program works. "I had known I had prostate cancer since at least September [2009], and I’d gone through a series of tests, and I was scared to death," he said. He admitted that he was in denial and was hoping for a cure through nonsurgical treatments. "I was in a delusional state of mind, to say the least, because I was scared. I did not want to have an operation. I’d never had an operation before," he said.

He learned about the Men’s Health Institute and e-mailed Dr. Steinberg, who called him almost immediately and set up an appointment.

"I had this feeling that he was concerned about me," he said. "I knew that there was a divine intervention going on. You know, when you feel comfortable with someone you never met before."

Using a new, minimally invasive da Vinci Robotic Surgical System, Dr. Steinberg and Dr. Gjertson performed successful surgery on Mr. Pertillar in April.

"His PSA is undetectable," Dr. Steinberg said. "Mr. Pertillar will continue his care here, follow-up care, for the rest of his life."

"I’m still under recovery," Mr. Pertillar said, "still going through the process of healing, but overall I would say it has been so beneficial. I feel extremely blessed. God’s given me another chance."

As of late August, the institute had reached more than 700 men through its educational presentations. PSA blood testing had been performed on 268 men, and 222 men had received digital rectal exams. About 12 cases of prostate cancer had been detected, Dr. Steinberg said.

"This represents people who might never show up at our [hospital] door," said the Rev. Marcus M. McKinney, a Baptist minister and a co-founder of the institute. "It’s a commitment as a ministry, as I see it, by Catholic health care," he said.

Mr. McKinney is director of pastoral counseling for St. Francis and is in touch with many religious leaders in Hartford. When he asked 35 pastors of various faiths to participate in the program, all 35 said yes.

"The hospital has determined that this will be a program in perpetuity as part of the mission of what we provide for the community," Mr. McKinney said.

"They [the hospital] know that it’s not a money-maker," Mr. Robinson said. "They know it’s something that we need to do for the community."

Kashifa Coleman, program coordinator, said she researches sites where testing should be performed. "I focus on all the venues, be it religious, educational institutions, barbershops. I target the areas where men are, and wherever they are, that’s where we try to be," she said.

Deacon Arthur Miller, director of the Office for Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Hartford, helps the institute connect with Catholic men. "The reason I’m involved is that there’s a crying need that people haven’t heard," he said. "I have to lift my voice. We don’t do it because the people we serve are Catholic. We do it because we are Catholic."

Mr. McKinney praised Mr. Pertillar for telling his story. "Men need to hear this because many men are feeling it but have never said it. Fear is what’s keeping men from getting care," he said.

Ms. Coleman said that a celebrity golf tournament in August raised $56,000 for the Curtis D. Robinson Men’s Health Institute. A Caribbean cruise in February is expected to raise more money. Information about the cruise and the institute, including upcoming screening locations, is available at (860) 714-4000 www.sfmhi.com.