By Bryan Hay

Dr. Rashid Abdu ’56 fulfilled a promise to his wife, Joanie, before she died of breast cancer in 1994, that no woman in the Mahoning Valley of northeastern Ohio facing the disease would ever be without specialized breast, diagnostic, and cancer care.

“I promised her that someday we are going to have a comprehensive breast care center here in Youngstown,” he says. “She held my hand firmly and said, ‘God bless you. Go for it.’ But because it was a new idea, my fellow physicians, especially surgeons, did not readily accept it. It took 16 years of pull and push to finally make the dream a reality.”

Before Abdu founded the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center (JACBCC), in Youngstown, Ohio, women living in the Mahoning Valley, consisting of Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana counties, who had insurance or were of means traveled to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or beyond for their care, while the poor came late and died early.

“I will never forget a woman whose breast had been replaced by a large malignant ulcer,” Abdu recalls. “Yes, she felt a lump two years earlier, but she did not see a doctor because she did not have insurance. She lived about 2 miles away from the hospital.”

From the start, the JACBCC’s mission has been to give the best care possible to every woman, regardless of color, creed, ethnicity, religion, or economic status.

“Now, women of the Mahoning Valley don’t have to go anywhere to get the best care possible,” says Abdu, a retired general surgeon, emeritus director of surgical education at St. Elizabeth Health Center, and emeritus professor of surgery at Northeast Ohio Medical University.

The center is designed, built, decorated, and equipped with the latest equipment. Everything is on one floor.

“When a woman comes in for screening, imaging, a bone density scan, biopsy, or chemotherapy, she does not have to go up stairs, down stairs, or across the street,” Abdu says. “Every patient is greeted by a professional who is competent, compassionate, and caring, and who understands their anxieties and fears of what may be found. I saw that fear and anxiety firsthand when women came to my office for consultation, when I was still in practice.”

As much as possible, the staff at the JACBCC try to eliminate that cold and clinical hospital environment, making it warm, friendly, and reassuring.

“To help the poor and underserved, we have established Joanie’s Promise Fund, supported by grants, private donors, and the annual Panerathon, organized by Covelli Enterprises and the Mercy Health Foundation,” Abdu says. “The Panerathon brings thousands who run, walk, celebrate life, and contribute for a worthy cause.”

To reach the unreachable, particularly women who lack education, resources, and even transportation, the center bought a $1 million Mammovan, “Joanie On the Go,” the only one in northeastern Ohio with 3D imaging. It’s staffed with certified technicians and an education liaison, who teaches women breast self-examination and the importance of early detection of breast cancer. The liaison also holds monthly meetings with Joanie’s Sisters, who are breast cancer survivors.

“They form a support group for each other,” Abdu says. “The meeting takes place in the evening, either in the large conference room of the center or weather permitting, in the one-of-a-kind Joanie’s Serenity Garden, adjacent to the center.

“Our maiden trip with the Mammovan took place on Sept. 1, 2016, to East Liverpool, a poor city in the Appalachian foothills of the Ohio River,” he says. “We encountered women who had never had a mammogram.”

In addition to the mobile mammography unit, JACBCC now has a 3D imaging screening satellite in Poland, Columbiana County, with another to be opened soon in Cortland, Trumbull County.

Before the JACBCC was established, the Mahoning Valley had one of the highest mortality rates from breast cancer in Ohio and in the nation.

“It is still high, but we are reaching more women at an early stage than before. In fact, we seldom see stage 3 and 4 anymore,” Abdu says.

Every patient who is diagnosed with breast cancer is presented at a weekly interdisciplinary conference, the only conference of its kind in Mahoning Valley.

A nurse navigator presents the medical history of each patient. A radiologist then shows the mammogram, sonogram, and or MRI findings. A pathologist shows slides from the biopsy(ies), and describes the grade (how aggressive), and whether the hormonal receptors are positive or negative. Next the surgeons discuss the level of surgery needed based on the stage of the tumor, and a radiation oncologist and medical oncologist discuss the role of chemo and radiation therapy. A geneticist is always present to determine whether genetic testing is warranted.

The nurse navigator then discusses the recommendation of the team with the patient, and a report is sent to other physicians involved if not present at the meeting.

“An accreditation inspector once attended this conference. At the end, he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘A better program I have never seen,’ ” Abdu recalls.

The Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center, considered one of the finest in the United States, has received many awards, including the Women’s Choice Award and Press Gainey Award, and the American College of Radiology named it a Center of Excellence. An editorial in the Vindicator, a local paper, said it was “the crown jewel in health care in our Valley.”

“An inspector for accreditation sent me a personal note: ‘The staff are exemplary, and I have inspected many breast centers all over the United States. Very few, if any, could compare with yours,’ ” Abdu says.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, Abdu was asked about his optimism in the continuing fight against breast cancer: He is optimistic about early detection, advances in diagnostics, and relentless research in new chemotherapeutics, including immunotherapy.

Recalling his days at Lafayette

Born in poverty in Aireem, a small village in Yemen, Abdu is forever grateful to the Lafayette Alumni Association, which awarded him a four-year full tuition scholarship to Lafayette.

“Lafayette gave me a great education and helped me achieve my boyhood dream of becoming a surgeon,” he says. “While at Lafayette, I worked for my meals by waiting at my fraternity house, SAE, worked as my dorm proctor for my room, and sold jackets and flowers at games.

“In the summer, I went back to my home base in Falls Church, Virginia, and again waited on tables in a restaurant, babysat, and dug ditches. But I was getting a good education at Lafayette and was very happy.”

At age 12, and before he completed first grade, Abdu served as a junior interpreter for the first American diplomatic mission to Yemen. His skills caught the attention of Harlan Clark, the American consul, who organized the mission. Abdu continued to work for the Clarks as a houseboy and, against strong objection by his family, followed the Clarks to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, Beirut, Lebanon, and finally to the United States.

After Lafayette, he graduated from George Washington University School of Medicine in 1960. He completed his surgical residency at St. Elizabeth Health Center, then took the board exams and became certified by the American Board of Surgery and American Board of Abdominal Surgery. He was inducted into the American College of Surgeons in 1968 and the International College of Surgeons in 1981.

Abdu overcame naysayers in his homeland who dismissed his goal to become a physician. Even his uncle, whom he lived with, sarcastically said, “Oh, sure,” when he shared his dream of becoming a doctor after caring for his cousin, who was extremely ill with yellow fever. He believes he may have been the first Yemeni to graduate from college.

He returned to Yemen several times during his 50-year medical career, working with professionals to improve medical facilities, teach basic and clinical sciences to medical students at the University of Science and Technology, and serve as consultant to the Minister of Health to inspect all health facilities in Yemen.

He remains certain that his wife, Joanie, is looking down from heaven saying, “Well done!”

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