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Always Ready: A military man’s motto on service and cancer

November 11, 2021

Captain Esan O. Simon, MD, MBA, FS, USPHS, has led a distinguished 23 year, active-duty career in the United States Military. His journey of service to his country, in addition to the acquisition of multiple degrees and training in the field of medicine, has taken him around the world. A former Flight Surgeon in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, Dr. Simon now serves as Medical Director and Regional Practice Director at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

For most of his career, Dr. Simon was flying on a weekly basis and was required to undergo frequent physical assessments to maintain ‘flight readiness.’ Never on any medications, he was a beacon of health and fitness his entire life. But after having a physical earlier this summer, Dr. Simon was found to be slightly anemic. Subsequent lab tests showed he had no iron deficiency, so he requested a referral to a hematologist and met with Dr. Jason Haldas, a specialist at Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in Waterford. Additional testing revealed a diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells found in bone marrow.

Almost immediately Dr. Haldas set out a strategy according to Dr. Simon. “He said, ‘This is how it’s going to work,’ and proceeded to define the entire process of my treatment plan leading up to my stem cell transplant.” Dr. Simon began an oral chemotherapy regimen as well as weekly injections he received at the Care Center. As a frequent visitor, he enjoyed his appointments as much as one could—explaining that the nurses became like family to him. “They were caring, compassionate, they work really well together, and they fully embraced caring for ‘the whole person.’”

Approximately two months after treatment was initiated, Dr. Simon was referred to Dr. Stuart Seropian, Director of Stem Cell Transplantation at Smilow Cancer Hospital, and his team stepped in to begin the process of preparing Dr. Simon for his stem cell transplant. Cara Keenan, transplant coordinator, was critical to Dr. Simon as he became acclimated to a new care team and process, details not lost on this lifelong military man.

“She was phenomenal,” said Dr. Simon. “Cara made sure I knew everything that was going on, and the entire process was so coordinated. It was clear that everyone knew their roles and was part of a very integrated, collaborative system. They made a very difficult time in my life, easy, and I never felt uninformed.”

In addition to Cara, Dr. Simon was also moved by Karen Reyes Benzi, BSN, RN, a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer, Hospital Corps, U.S. Navy and an infusion nurse based on Smilow Cancer Hospital’s NP7. Karen works feverishly to curate information for veterans who arrive at Smilow as patients, making sure they are informed of local, statewide, and national resources available to them. And while Dr. Simon is still active duty military, she was inspired to meet him.

“Dr. Simon was referred to me from our Care Coordinator, Carrie Pyer, who performs new patient intake interviews and by APRN Alfredo Axtmayer. Our hematology-oncology staff is committed to meeting with veteran patients to ensure that they are directed to resources, thanked for their service, and presented with a Veterans Recognition Coin,” Karen explained. Karen and her team have spent the last few years building this program, and the gift of the recognition coin is a truly special exchange.

“Dr. Simon was gracious to take my phone call – he was a Navy Doctor, and I am a retired Navy Corpsman Chief, who also served with Coast Guardsmen and women, so we had to meet! The Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus, which means ‘Always Ready,’ and the Navy motto is Semper Fortis, which is ‘Always Courageous,’ and Dr. Simon and his wife have exemplified this in every aspect of life. It has been an honor to have a small part in their journey.”

After a two-week delay, during which Dr. Simon had to go into quarantine after developing upper respiratory symptoms following exposure to an individual who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, Dr. Simon began high-dose chemotherapy on August 25 to prepare for transplant. Two days later, Dr. Simon underwent a successful stem cell transplant and he was discharged 12 days later.

Dr. Simon has completed the last of three follow-up appointments with Dr. Seropian. And back in New London, he continues to see Dr. Haldas to monitor his blood and platelet counts, and to stay on top of any possible complications. Dr. Haldas says, “Esan is a true role model, and I am proud to know he is a part of our military. The composure and courage he displayed as he faced his myeloma diagnosis were truly remarkable. He is very intelligent, organized, and driven, and on top of that, he is a kind, gentle family man.”

A family man indeed. Dr. Simon emphasized the steadfast support of his wife since his diagnosis, but truly for the entire time they have been together. “Since my first meeting with Dr. Haldas, the amazing support and love from my wife, Valerie, and our three children has been invaluable,” said Dr. Simon. “Valerie and I met in Atlanta, we had a military wedding on base in Pensacola, Florida in 2002, and she has been by my side ever since, and I am so thankful.”

Since 2019, Dr. Simon has served as Medical Director at the Coast Guard Academy, and he will be departing in December for his newest assignment: a transfer to Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he will be able to continue his career serving others.

Submitted by Eliza Folsom on November 11, 2021