Sullivan leaves legacy at UAB’s O’Neal Cancer Center

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Most people will remember Pat Sullivan as the former Auburn quarterback who won the Heisman trophy, but his legacy includes much more than football, especially among doctors at UAB’s O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Sullivan served on UAB’s football staff from 1999-2006. In 2003, he was diagnosed with a form of head and neck cancer, which doctors say can be extremely difficult on patients.

“The head and neck cancer survivors are a unique group,” Dr. Smita Bhatia, director of the Institute for Cancer Outcomes and Survivorship at UAB, said. “Treatment is so complex, and the complications are devastating.”

That’s why Sullivan and his wife, Jean, wanted to help implement a program at UAB for people dealing with that type of cancer. His experience with the disease became an example that helped doctors understand how to effectively serve other patients.

“All he wanted us to do was to learn from his experience as a head and neck cancer survivor, so that the patients who came in the future wouldn’t have to navigate and struggle through all the things that he had to do and Jean had to do,” Bhatia said.

The program, in a pilot phase now, is called the Pat and Jean Sullivan Comprehensive Head and Neck Cancer Survivor Care Program (or the Sullivan Survivorship Program, for short). UAB will fully launch the first-of-its-kind program in early 2020. It’s a supportive program that helps patients with pain management, nutrition and any other issues they may face when dealing with head and neck cancer. Doctors follow the patients through the process and even check in on them annually for the rest of their lives.

“There’s so much need in terms of supporting these patients through treatment and for many years beyond,” Bhatia said. “And that’s what we wanted to do and are continuing to do this with renewed enthusiasm for Pat and for Jean, and we’re very thankful for what they’ve done to contribute toward this.”

Dr. William Carroll, a senior scientist in the O’Neal Cancer Center, envisioned the program, and Sullivan’s experience helped pave a path for it. In the process, the former football star touched the lives of many of the doctors who worked with him.

“We remember him because he, through all of his adversities, was so strong,” Bhatia said. “And all of his adversities, he cared more about his family and about other patients. He never talked about his own issues, never once.”

A celebration of life ceremony will be held in Sullivan’s memory Friday at Church of the Highlands in Grant’s Mill at 1:30 p.m.


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