Beth DuPree: The Good Doctor

Meet the woman who wants to revolutionize breast cancer care

By Melinda Henneberger
Dr. Beth DuPree on her last day of work at the breast cancer hospital she is determined to reopen.
Photograph: Photo by Samantha Appleton

DuPree admits to the audience that she was not exactly wide open to Eastern notions about healing until a close friend from work was diagnosed with brain cancer while pregnant with her first child. “So I took a course in reiki,” a Japanese healing technique that focuses on energy flow. “Not because I believed in reiki—at that time, I only rakied my leaves!—but because I needed to do something for my girlfriend,” who had been given a very poor prognosis (and is doing fine 12 years later). “I live in a house of skeptics, and my husband thought I was kind of out there with my woo-woo girlfriends.”

But she’d gotten even further out there  by the time another friend, an orthopedic surgeon, was diagnosed with ALS: “She called me, crying, and said, ‘I am so screwed. Will you come over here with the Cliffs Notes to spirituality?’ ” Which is when DuPree decided to write a book—a spiritual memoir, really—that quotes a medium who channels the Archangel Raphael and the Blessed Mother.

Her friend with ALS died three years ago. “I feel her with me every day, and if you don’t believe that, I don’t care,” she tells her audience of future health care workers, not one of whom looks skeptical. “The last thing she blinked to me, her blinks spelled out—everybody’s over 18 in here, right?—her blinks spelled out, ‘Publish the fuck-ing book!’ ” Remember, she tells the students, you can’t be good healers unless you can heal yourselves, so enjoy life already and “stop pissing it away, because we’re all going to die. And I hope I have lit a fire under you, because you guys are going to be taking care of me someday.”

The notion of a one-stop shop devoted to the treatment of a single disease is not new. Such centers have long existed for kidney dialysis, orthopedics and cardiac care, and although cancer takes so many forms that it is not considered a single disease, large centers like New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering offer the full range of treatment. In the 1970s, Melvin J. Silverstein, MD, one of Beth DuPree’s role models, brought many aspects of breast care under one roof, but his Van Nuys, California, facility stopped short of offering mastectomy and reconstruction. Since then, a hospital solely dedicated to the full range of breast care hasn’t been considered a profitable enough endeavor (mainly because breast cancer surgeries are not reimbursed as highly as some other types, DuPree says). Still, she chose to buck the conventional wisdom. She partnered with DSI, an operator of kidney dialysis centers looking to expand into hospitals dedicated to individual diseases and created this oasis, a dream come true for doctors, patients and families. There is just one problem: The Comprehensive Breast Care and Aesthetics Institute at DSI of Bucks County still isn’t turning a profit.

So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised when, on January 25, I get an e-mail from DuPree saying that “The economy and politics are wreaking havoc” on the hospital, and the parent company has decided to close it in just a few weeks. “But fear not,” she writes, “we will prevail in the end.”

Over a series of phone calls, she fills in the details: In late 2008, she endured several near-death experiences as her parent company informed her that they needed to find a buyer for the troubled facility or the doors would have to close. For many months, she says, she convinced them to push back their deadline. “I was, like, ‘Is that even legal? To shut the doors when patients are in treatment?’ I think it was one of  those bullshit men’s power plays.” (The CEO of DSI, Leif Murphy, did not respond to messages left on his voice mail and with his assistant.)

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