Radiation therapy was not always Jerry Sintay’s passion. But, once he was introduced to this profession, he instantly became captivated by it and knew from that moment on, helping cancer patients was his purpose in life.
For 32 years, Sintay, Director of Radiation Therapy at Iredell Health System, has been fulfilling that purpose right here in Iredell County. After many changes and improvements in the profession, and even new perspectives in his personal life, Sintay is retiring.
In July of 1990, Sintay walked into Iredell Memorial Hospital for the first time as a potential job candidate, and on Friday, he will walk through those same hospital doors for the last time as Director of Radiation Therapy.
Sintay grew up in Michigan, unsure of where his life would lead him. At age 17, he left his parent’s home and quit high school to pursue a factory job. He did go back to high school and graduated on time, but Sintay’s path to success was no straight line. Along with his faith, and giving the credit to God for giving him his talents and abilities, several people in his life helped Sintay achieve the success he has today. Sintay explains that one of his biggest influences was his then-girlfriend of 11 years and now-wife of nearly 46 years, Donna, who is still the love of his life.
Before becoming the Director of Radiation Therapy at Iredell Health System, and after going to a Christian university in Minneapolis, Sintay worked with psychiatric patients as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in a halfway house. His life then led him to the Air Force, where he developed a passion for radiology and became a certified X-ray technologist. He was stationed in Texas and served in the Air Force for 4.5 years before he and his family moved to Seattle, Washington.
While in Seattle, Sintay applied and was accepted into the University of Washington Medical Center’s new radiation therapy program. Only one year after graduating, Sintay was promoted to lead therapist, a role he had for eight years.
Sintay enjoyed his job as a radiation therapist, but after years of developing his skill set, he wished to be in a director position. That’s when he saw an advertisement that would change his life forever. In a medical journal, he found that a hospital in a small town on the east coast, Iredell Memorial Hospital, was hiring a Director of Radiation Therapy. Even though Iredell Memorial was across the country from where he was, he was drawn to the hospital’s hometown feel and nonprofit structure. He applied for the role, but as time went by, Sintay had almost given up hope.
“I thought, ‘I guess they don’t want me.’ After two weeks, the vice president called me and told me that they had interviewed over 60 people and they had decided on somebody, but he said he was really interested in talking to me before they made the other candidate an offer. They flew me out right away,” said Sintay.
At that time, in 1990, the radiation therapy department at Iredell Memorial Hospital had just opened a few months prior, and the health system was looking for a director to lead the department in the right direction.
“I called my dad and told him about the interview. My dad, being old school, said, ‘Go buy a three-piece gray suit, a white shirt, a tie, and a leather briefcase, so you look businesslike and important.’ And I said, ‘Well, OK, but what do I put in the briefcase?’”
So, after his flight, Jerry Sintay arrived at Iredell Memorial Hospital for his interview with a fresh haircut, a new three-piece suit, and a briefcase — with nothing in it except his ambitions to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients.
The administration team at Iredell knew immediately after interviewing Sintay that he was the right person for the job. They offered him the position that day.
In 1990, Sintay had been married 14 years and had moved 14 different times, so he knew he needed to convince his family.
“My wife said, ‘You’re going to have to put down roots and promise me you won’t move.’ So, during lunch that day, I drove out to Lake Norman because I enjoy fishing, and I stood there on the edge of the water. I called my wife and said, ‘I think I found the place I want to live forever,’” said Sintay.
Sintay and his family moved to Iredell County. He jumped into his new role without hesitation and quickly began growing the department.
Throughout Sintay’s years as director, there were many changes, new equipment, and new additions. He remembers when radiation therapy got its second linear accelerator, the machine that delivers the radiation treatment. They could not get the machine through the hospital hallways, so they had to cut out a section of brick from the outside of the hospital and lift the machine into the building with a crane.
And since he began his role, Sintay has diligently grown the department, always ensuring that his team had the best of the best and finding solutions to even the most difficult of challenges.
“Jerry was instrumental in the purchasing of our True Beam System. Jerry dedicated his work life at Iredell to ensure every patient received the best possible treatment. The TrueBeam provides the citizens of our community the best possible care locally without having to travel to a large medical center,” said Larry Pizzorni, Assistant Vice President of Ancillary Services at Iredell Health System.
In the early years of Sintay’s tenure at Iredell, the hospital was contracting out a dosimetrist, the medical professional who designs the radiation treatment plan for cancer patients, and it was costly. Sintay had dosimetry experience from his program in Washington and saw an opportunity to save the hospital a significant amount of money. He practiced dosimetry under the supervision of a physicist, took the very difficult board exam, and became a board-certified dosimetrist.
Though this saved the hospital money, it cost Sintay a lot of his time.
“I would stay regularly until 10 or 11 p.m. As we grew, I would sometimes have to stay until 2 or 3 a.m. designing treatment plans,” said Sintay.
For the next 26 years, Sintay was the Director of Radiation Therapy in addition to being the department’s only dosimetrist.
It wasn’t until Larry Pizzorni came in 2016 that things changed.
“I loved my job and dosimetry, so I did not mind staying late hours. My wife was, and still is a realtor and works late hours, and my kids were grown. But Larry insisted that this had to change. He told me I could not continue my life like this. So, they hired a dosimetrist,” said Sintay.
“I didn’t realize how much more effective I could be as a director, not having that on my shoulders. It changed everything, and I owe that to Larry,” he added.
One of the biggest changes, though, happened recently — just this year.
Sintay spent the majority of his life helping those with cancer, but it wasn’t until he had his own battle with cancer that he began to truly understand what it feels like to be a cancer patient. He was diagnosed earlier this year.
“The cancer was all through my abdomen. I was asking my children what they wanted and preparing my wife. I was doing all the things someone would do who felt like their time left was short,” said Sintay.
Sintay had eight rounds of treatment in Iredell’s infusion center where the nurses and staff gave him excellent care. After his treatments and the prayers of many, he had a PET/CT to determine the state of his cancer.
His report showed regression of the disease — the treatment worked.
“God had answered those prayers and after getting that report, I felt like I had a new lease on life. That alone will change a person because you now realize how precious every day is,” said Sintay.
That’s when Sintay’s perspective changed.
“If I have any regrets, I wish that I could have directed the department through the lens of a cancer patient. It’s impossible to really know how a cancer patient feels and what their real concerns and needs are until you’ve been one,” said Sintay.
He now understands that intense elation patients feel when receiving a positive report, to know that the treatment worked and the cancer was gone. Sintay connected to his patients on a level that he never knew he could.
“To have a patient see the results of what we did for them is beyond rewarding. Rewarding is not even a sufficient word for that feeling. It is a fulfillment that few occupations outside of healthcare could give a person,” said Sintay.
Throughout his over three decades at Iredell, Sintay is proud that he has been able to see new perspectives and grow and develop as a leader. Though he is quick to give credit to others, Sintay has been an exceptional leader. This is evident through the several long-term employees on his team and his commitment to patient safety. In his 32 years at Iredell, the radiation therapy department has always achieved accreditation from regulatory bodies with no deficiencies.
“Most of all, I’m proud of the impact we have made on the thousands of patients that have come through here. We have made an impact on their lives and their families’ lives and given them hope. Providing the community with the best care has been my mission. That is the overarching mission of our hospital in general. I’ve been privileged to be a part of an organization like Iredell,” said Sintay.
“What better occupation could God have blessed me with?” he added.
As Sintay thoughtfully reflects on his time at Iredell, he realizes he will miss his staff, patients, management team leaders, mentors, and friends.
“It just recently sunk in that in a few days, I’m not going to get to come in here anymore, and I always looked forward to coming to work every day. One of the biggest parts of my life, the thing that fills my tank and my purpose, is now changing,” said Sintay.
After retirement, Sintay hopes to find his new purpose.
“I love helping people and giving back. So, I am excited to find what God’s new mission is for me,” said Sintay.
He also hopes to travel more, see new places, and complete home improvement projects.
Sintay is grateful for his years at Iredell, and those who work at the health system all know what a tremendous impact he has made.
“Jerry is a model of integrity and an employee advocate. He functioned in a dual role for most of his career working long days and sometimes weekends. We will miss Jerry and wish him the best of health and good fortune in his retirement,” said Pizzorni.
“Jerry has had a long and successful career at Iredell. His handprints are everywhere throughout the J. Allen Knox Radiation Therapy Center, from his leadership to his clinical acumen. He has personally worked with thousands of patients and their families with wonderful compassion and clinical skill over the years,” said John Green, President & CEO of Iredell Health System. “He will be sorely missed, but we are so thankful for all he has done and how he has set our organization up for many more years of caring for our community when in need.”