ELLSWORTH – Michael Reisman, executive director of the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center since its inception in 2004, is retiring later this month.
If it was up to Reisman, who prefers to stay out of the spotlight, that may be all that was said about him specifically and his role at the organization. But he agreed to speak with The American about his career and future plans.
There were subtle hints that Reisman’s relationship with the Beth Wright Center may have been preordained. Before he took the job, Reisman remembers seeing an interview with Andy Santerre, a local racecar driver, who was holding a raffle for ad space on his car to raise funds for the Center. He also remembers asking his wife about a building on the corner of High and Main that he had noticed for the first time. That building was, at the time, the Beth C Wright Center headquarters.
Reisman’s sister had also been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier, so when he heard about the job, he felt that it might be a way to help her and to reconnect with his sibling.
“I don’t really believe in that stuff,” said Reisman. “But looking back on it … besides my idea it may have been somebody else’s idea, too.”
A bit of a wandering soul early in his life, Reisman rolled into Bar Harbor on May 5, 1972, and dropped anchor. He started working at the Golden Anchor Inn as a dishwasher and then a cook. He was also involved with rec sports at the old MDI YMCA, eventually volunteering to become the commissioner of the adult softball league.
It was here, early on in his life, that Reisman would come to internalize the core philosophy that would help him help others throughout his life.
“I sort of made fun of the softball players at the time because they were seemingly needy and crazy,” Reisman remembers. “But looking back, I realized they just wanted to make sure that as commissioner, I cared about them. I respected them. And not just I, but the league itself, we, that we cared about them and that we were good at doing what we were doing. I realized in everything I’ve done since then that that’s pretty much what people want. Just care about us, show us respect, be good at what you do.”
With that as his focus, Reisman became program director at the Y in 1979, and eventually became the executive director in 1986. After a brief sojourn away from the area, Reisman returned to become the first ever program director for Island Connections.
“I didn’t have much of a background in cancer before I started at the Beth Wright Center,” said Reisman, “except that at Island Connections, we did give rides to people to radiation treatment. So I at least understood that some people were traveling 50 miles, five days a week, to get to radiation treatment.”
There were a lot of challenges for cancer patients around the time the Wright Center was founded, including a lack of resources and support and a stigma around speaking about the disease. That’s where the team, the “we” that Reisman constantly stressed, stepped in.
The most visible accomplishment is the establishment, and multiple expansions, of the permanent headquarters at 23 Commerce Park. But the physical brick and mortar of the building pales in comparison to the support infrastructure the center has helped to build for cancer patients in a region that offers a unique set of challenges.
The team started its work by just listening to cancer patients in Hancock and Washington counties and getting a sense of what was lacking in their care. They worked with the American Cancer Society to create support groups that were local and easily accessible, and to provide patients with access to volunteers who could speak with them and provide information about their diagnosis.
They spent a lot of time helping people who witnessed a need and were motivated to either start a support group or provide a service but may not have had the wherewithal or the funding to get it off the ground. Support groups popped up in Machias and Lubec. The Downeast Living with Cancer Conference and Washington County Cancer Conference were started in 2007 and 2008 because of patient and caregiver-driven efforts assisted by the center.
The team also coordinated a grant in partnership with Health Acadia to create a cancer patient navigation program. The program allows for a patient navigator, based in Washington County, to work with people one-on-one and help them overcome the logistical barriers in their treatment so that they can achieve a positive cancer outcome.
“We are a place where people can come to get help, receive help. And we are a place where people can come to offer help,” Reisman explained.
Angela Fochesato, one of two part-time navigators hired with this grant, has been selected to replace Reisman as the next executive director of the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center.
Reisman says the time has come for him to step away.
“I’m 72 years old,” Reisman stated when asked why he felt it was the right time to retire. “But I think it’s also time after 18 years for new leadership at the organization. I think it’s in good shape for the next person but there’s a lot more that can be done.”
“The closer it comes the more excited I’ve been getting,” Reisman continued. “I’ve been getting the question a lot, ‘how am I going to deal with it?’ And I’m sure there might be a tough day or so. It’s okay to be sad for a day or two, or a week, but then you’ve gotta stop being sad. The whole thing you tell people with cancer is to live for the day. Let’s just get through this day. I never got depressed working here because most of the people I work with are positive and have skills and are interesting to be around. There was just as much laughter as there was tears.”
Reisman doesn’t have a specific plan for his retirement, but he is sure about one thing: “I don’t plan to be sitting at home.”
The Beth C. Wright Cancer Center plans to hold a retirement celebration for Reisman later this month.