Lynn Knuth hoped the only time he would see the inside of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center was through his work for a building supply company contracted to provide and install drywall for the new hospital.
But then Knuth, 54, was diagnosed with cancer. A multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow gnawing at 45 percent of the bones in his body, discovered after what should have been a fun weekend golfing with friends in 2014.
“I could hardly put a shirt on it hurt so bad, I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t lay flat,” said Knuth, 54.
At the urging of a friend, Knuth saw a doctor after the tournament on a Sunday. On Tuesday, he received the test results and elected to begin treatment at University of Nebraska Medical Center immediately.
The enormous tower crane looming over the construction site was the only indication of the Buffett Cancer Center at that time, Knuth said.
Three years later, construction at the $323 million cancer care and research hospital is drawing to a close. It will open its doors June 5 to patients like Knuth with a new strategy to treat cancer.
Dr. Ken Cowan, the director overseeing the center, said he has been giving personal tours to the 1,200 physicians, nurses, faculty and staff who will be working at the center to get them acquainted with the 615,000-square-foot space.
Existing as two towers connected by office suites and what Cowan calls “knowledge transfer zones,” the Buffett Cancer Center is combining two missions into one.
“It really was designed to integrate cancer care and cancer research under one roof for the benefit of patients,” he said.
The eight-story north tower, named the C.L. Werner Hospital after the Werner Enterprises chairman, includes 108 hospital beds -- including 12 intensive care units -- designed to provide care for a wide array of patient needs.
Hallways the length of football fields and dotted with nurses’ stations, consultation offices and other amenities will focus on various forms of the cancer depending on the floor.
Each of the patient rooms is state-of-the-art in its care offerings as well as healing and comfort for patients and their families. Patients will receive tablet computers they can use to access medical information as well as entertainment.
The new hospital will also provide outpatient care like MRIs and radiology treatments in addition to inpatient services all in one location, offering a one-stop shop for patients like Todd Ball of Lincoln, who needed several services after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
Ball, 67, began physical therapy to repair what he thought was a damaged sciatic nerve in his back, but when the pain returned, his doctor discovered cancer in his prostate. An MRI conducted at Nebraska Medicine that June found Ewings Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that primarily occurs in children.
“That turned out to be the big cancer, and the prostate cancer became kind of secondary,” Ball said.
He began a rotation of chemotherapy with outpatient treatment which was followed by a five-day stay at the hospital repeated every three weeks.
Before the Buffett Cancer Center opened, Ball said he would have to navigate UNMC’s growing campus to find the right clinics for his treatment.
Now, when he returns to Omaha for a checkup on June 9, each of the cancer clinics -- both inpatient and outpatient -- will be located in one building, with researchers down the hall ready to study his case and work with physicians to create an integrated treatment plan.
“Everybody is trying to do what we’re going to be doing in having programs focused on integrating research and care into precision medicine,” Cowan said.
Being able to study a patient’s genomic information and the detailed molecular information researchers can glean from biopsies, Cowan said the hospital will be able to find out "what is driving that person’s individual cancer."
“That way, we can use a particular approach to develop a specific, targeted therapeutic regimen,” he added.
The labs that will provide support for patient care while also conducting basic scientific research will be in the Walter Scott Cancer Research Tower, a 10-story structure named for the Omaha businessman and philanthropist.
The two towers connect to make a large L-shape on UNMC’s campus. The Scott research tower runs north and south and contains 325,000-square-feet of space on its own, enough room for 98 research labs that will begin seeing use this summer.
By August, Cowan said the labs will be 60-70 percent occupied, leaving room for continued recruitment and growth for what he envisions as an 800-person army of researchers striving to find a cure for cancer.
But it’s the lab’s proximity to the hospital that is a big draw for physicians and scientists alike.
Dr. Sarah Holstein, a specialist in multiple myeloma, left the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, to join the Buffett Cancer Center for an opportunity to be a true “physician scientist.”
“As I began to understand the vision for the Buffett Cancer Center, I was blown away,” she said. “This was exactly what I was looking for -- a place that understands the importance of advancing cancer research and translating that into patient care by bringing physicians and scientists together.”
Holstein now works alongside Dr. Muhamed Baljevic -- the hematologist-oncologist who treated Knuth -- who was also recruited to work at the new cancer center.
Just behind the main lobby of the center are two conference rooms for doctors and researchers to huddle together and discuss individual cancer cases, while collaborative spaces in the areas connecting the two towers are also meant to foster teamwork between the two missions.
Holstein said while it sounds simple to put doctors and researchers together under one roof, it’s not a common practice at most cancer hospitals attached to medical universities.
“I’m looking forward to having my clinical colleagues 30 seconds away on the same floor and in the same office, rather than a 10-15 minute walk away in another building,” she said.
In addition to putting myeloma and lymphoma researchers next door to the hematologists working in the clinics, the Buffett Cancer Center also connects to three different buildings on UNMC’s campus through 21 access points.
The six operating rooms in the Buffett Cancer Center are just a short walk away from 25 more operating rooms in the connected Hixson-Lied Center, while skywalks to both Durham Towers will also foster collaboration, Cowan said.
Ball praised the team care he has experienced thus far, both at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine as well as St. Elizabeth’s in Lincoln, and said he expects it to keep improving in the new Buffett Cancer Center.
And Knuth, who recently received a second stem cell transplant at Nebraska Medicine, said knowing doctors and nurses are excited about the new center provides patients like him more hope.
When he returns to the clinic for future checkups, he’ll find a vastly different place than the early construction site he saw in 2014.
Knuth said doesn’t expect the relationship he has formed with his care staff to change, however.
“These guys are top-notch,” he said. “It’s amazing how they treat people.”