When cancer hits home: Sanford leader’s story shows how care has changed

Aug. 2, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by South Dakota Biotech.

In one generation, the access to advanced medical care in South Dakota has changed dramatically.

Jessica Aguilar’s story proves it.

As a child, Aguilar remembers her sister, Meghan, being diagnosed with leukemia.

“She’s doing well today. She’s in her 30s and has a child and is great,” Aguilar said.

But Meghan and her family had to travel to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to receive the care she needed.

“She received some care in Sioux Falls, but we didn’t have infrastructure for more at the time,” Aguilar said. “To me, that was very significant in my family’s life, so there was always this draw to health care.”

Aguilar’s path into the field veered a bit first.

After graduating from Washington High School, she studied political science and economics before working on a campaign sparked her interest in health policy.

“I got exposed a lot to health care, and the things I liked about my job in the campaign were budgeting and managing people, things that were more administrative.”

That led her to a job with electronic medical records provider Epic Systems in Wisconsin and then a few years at Mayo Clinic for an administrative fellowship.

It was about the time when Denny Sanford made the monumental donation that renamed Sanford Health and infused hundreds of millions into research and development.

“That’s when my parents, being good promoters of Sioux Falls, started sending me news articles and saying, ‘You might want to keep this on your radar,’ ” Aguilar said. “But at the same time, I was seeing the news stories in trade journals, and the industry was starting to take notice that something was going on.”

Sanford Center

She moved back to Sioux Falls for a job at Sanford Health eight years ago and has worked in a variety of roles leading up to her current one as senior executive director of women’s, children’s and cancer.

Her work helps set strategic direction, including by connecting the research side of Sanford to the clinical care happening throughout the system.

“For any good program, research and clinical trials are a large piece,” she said. “We’re giving patients options for their care, for the latest and greatest, and we’re helping develop that. I think the cancer service line is where you see it the most.”

This year, Aguilar has seen how cancer care has evolved in Sioux Falls in about the most personal way possible.

Her 5-year-old son, James, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February.

“I think the last six months of my life have really been living my work,” she said.

“After the initial shock, because it’s my family’s second round with childhood cancer, it wasn’t a matter of thinking it could never happen to us. It was thinking that we’ve done this. We can do this again.”

But this time was different. James could remain in Sioux Falls for his care.

“My husband and I were willing to travel, and oncologists say it’s a team sport. If they feel you should see a different provider, they’re happy to refer you. But our oncologist told us Sanford is part of the Children’s Oncology Group, which is the gold standard.”

They could have taken James elsewhere, but the standard of care and protocols would have been the same, she said.

“We could take him to Mayo, but it would be the same thing, and we’d just have to drive more than three hours. That was reassuring,” she said. “It dawned on me why it’s so important that Sanford is part of the Children’s Oncology Group.”

Because his cancer was caught early, it’s highly treatable, and the prognosis is good.

“If you look at the advances in treating and curing childhood cancers in the last 40 years, it’s amazing how far we’ve come,” Aguilar said. “We often know how to get the cancer, but we don’t always know how to prevent bad side effects immediately or down the road. That’s the focus of a lot of research today.”

It’s work that now is even more significant to her.

“I’ve known these things intellectually, but it became very real,” she said. “When I talk about this in a meeting or researching this or that or trying to bring a clinical trial, this is why we’re doing it. There are real people that need it.”

The experience illustrates the significant progress that health care research and treatment have made in South Dakota over the past generation, said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.

“We talk about it a lot – how you can access the world’s best research and care in our health systems without leaving our state – but this family’s journey certainly shows it,” Johnson said.

“The strides that health care has made in research have been astounding. And the results are showing themselves in ways that are nothing short of life changing.”

When cancer hits home: Sanford leader’s story shows how care has changed

You hear a lot about how health care has come a long way in Sioux Falls. But her story proves it.

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