Oncology Surgeon Makes Birthdays Happen

Armando Sardi is one of the select few surgical oncologists in the world to employ leading edge procedures such as HIPEC to treat advanced stages of abdominal cancers. The 15-hour procedure is so grueling that many physicians view it in a negative light.

Celebrating a birthday is a wonderful experience. That’s the message delivered to Armando Sardi, MD, FACS, director of The Institute for Cancer Care, and head of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, by many of his patients. They tell him, that he is the person who makes birthdays happen.

“People invite me to their children’s graduations and weddings,” Sardi says. “They tell me, ‘When I got this disease five years ago, I was thinking that I was never going to see my daughter get married.’ When I see the impact and the hope that is created with patients, it is extremely rewarding.”

And that’s what Sardi does — he touches lives.

It started in Colombia

Sardi earned his MD in his native South America at the Universidad del Valle in Colombia, and completed a one-year internship there. But his prior experience as a foreign exchange student in Wisconsin gave him the drive to return to the U.S. where he enrolled in and completed residency programs at South Baltimore General and St. Agnes HealthCare. Shortly thereafter he found himself being pulled in the direction of surgical oncology.

“Dealing with cancer patients is very different than dealing with a patient who has a hernia, for example,” Sardi explains. “With a hernia, many times you don’t even remember the patients. You see them a couple of times, and that’s it. With cancer, you deal with people as a whole. It’s not just the surgery; it’s everything that the diagnosis of cancer made for these patients.”

Sardi has gone on to become one of the select few surgical oncologists in the world who employs leading edge procedures such as Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC) to treat advanced stages of abdominal cancers. The procedure is an aggressive surgical treatment reserved for patients with peritoneal surface malignancies, and it can take up to 15 hours to perform.

“It’s a very long operation, and it’s easy to give up,” says Sardi, explaining why few physicians employ the procedure. “Most of these patients have been told there is no hope; that they’re going to go home and die. There’s a very negative belief by most physicians that the procedure cannot be done; that there’s no way you remove all of the cancer. And even if you do, it’s going to come back on everybody — which, of course, is not true.”

Increasing awareness

Sardi has played an integral role in both raising funds for and increasing awareness of HIPEC as part of the fight against peritoneal cancers, including taking the lead in Mercy’s annual Heat It To Beat It benefit walk held annually in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Proceeds from the event support education and awareness efforts, as well as research conducted by Sardi and his colleagues.

“Patients and doctors need to be aware of what [HIPEC] does,” Sardi says. “The important thing is most of these patients are doing very well. The survival rate is pretty significant. And these are people who now have a normal quality of life. We have people running marathons. I had a 72-year-old lady who, six months after we did the operation, won a gold medal for her age in swimming. So we’re talking about people who are back to normal lives. They’re having their families and running their business.”

And Sardi is quick to acknowledge those who are helping to spread the word about HIPEC.

“You know, I get the credit for this, but this is actually the work of a lot of people,” he says. “We have a big team — nurses, physician assistants, fellows — all of whom are in partnership. We all work together to provide the best quality of life for patients.”

On a mission

Sardi also plays an instrumental role in an organization called United Hands for Health, Inc., (formerly known as The Mission to Columbia). The organization is just one year old, but the mission began seven years ago when Sardi, together with 28 medical and non-medical volunteers, led the first visit to Cali, Colombia, to provide the underserved community with medical services.

But the missions, Sardi explains, are only part of the vision.

“Eighty-five percent of the cancer mortality in the world occurs in developing countries, of which Columbia is one of them,” Sardi says. “People are dying for no reason. They are not receiving basic care, because they don’t have the resources or the education to know how to get it.”

The organization started a women’s program for breast and cervical cancer, for which Columbia has a very high mortality rate. The goal of the mission is to train physicians and empower the hospitals through education so that patients receive the care they need.

“We’ve started a new foundation in Colombia,” Sardi explains. “The idea is to develop a program that is sustainable. We’re trying to create a consortium of both national and local support to make sure that women receive quality care at an early stage. It’s about dedicating time to make it happen. And I think we’re going to make it.”

Endless energy

When people ask Sardi where he gets the energy to do all that he does, the surgical oncologist simply explains that he doesn’t need energy to be involved in so many worthwhile endeavors. The follow-up questions, often in the form of, “Why do you waste time and money? You spend time there every few weeks. You don’t get paid for any of that,” usually make him shake his head.

“It’s clear right away that they don’t understand what I’m talking about,” Sardi explains. “The fulfillment and energy that I get out of this work is just amazing. And one of the greatest things about [United Hands for Health] is that we meet some extraordinary people — both the people who go with us, as well as the patients. And it helps us realize how much we have, and how much we have to be grateful for.”