Sea Change

Aug 26, 2015

Dr. Lori J. Wirth and Sailing Heals help patients experience the transformative power of the ocean

When Lori J. Wirth, MD, has some free time from the demands of her role as Medical Director of the Center for Head and Neck Cancers at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, she can typically be found on the open sea on her 24-foot sailboat. In 2010, she had an opportunity to pass her love of the ocean on to patients affected by cancer through the foundation of Sailing Heals, a charitable organization that arranges free sailboat excursions for patients and caregivers.

AC: When did you first start sailing?

Dr. Wirth: I started sailing when I moved to Massachusetts after graduating from college, before going to medical school. I’ve loved it ever since. I’m a recreational sailor; I don’t race. I just like to get out on the water. It’s a real getaway from the incredibly hectic lives we all lead these days, which I appreciate now more than ever.

AC: What have been some of your most memorable sailing experiences?

Dr. Wirth: I really love cruising on a sailboat, both here in the United States and on a charter in the Virgin Islands. Exploring different parts of the eastern seaboard has been one of the highlights— up to Maine and down the Intercoastal Waterway. One of my favorite places I’ve discovered along the Intercoastal is Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia, which is almost entirely wilderness. You travel at a very different pace on a sailboat. It’s a wonderful way to see the country, unlike driving down I-95.

AC: How did you connect with Sailing Heals and become a member of their board?

Dr. Wirth: I got involved before Sailing Heals was actually founded, through my work here at Mass General. The Italian watchmaker Panerai, which has been a supporter of the Mass General Hospital Cancer Center, holds a classic yachts regatta every year out of the Corinthian Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In 2010, Panerai wanted to do something special at the regatta for survivors of cancer, because of their relationship with Mass General. The people they reached out to at Mass General knew I was an avid sailor and asked if I wanted to be involved. I jumped at the chance and arranged for a few patients to go out on sailboats with captains participating in the regatta.

Thanks to the success of that experience, Panerai offered a grant to form Sailing Heals. They’ve been an ongoing sponsor ever since. I was asked to help the organization team up with cancer centers in order to reach out to patients so that they can participate in the program. I was a founding Board member and continue to serve on the Board today.

In addition to sails for patients with cancer, we also do a few specialty sails each year. Our first “Pirates and Princesses” cruise for kids with cancer took place in August. We host our third annual Wicked Strong Sail in September, for people who have been impacted by the Boston Marathon bombing. We also do a sail for cancer center nurses from Mass General—they have a blast.

AC: How does Sailing Heals go about arranging a sailing outing for a patient?

Dr. Wirth: One of the challenges is reaching patients and letting them know that the program exists, that it’s free, and that it’s easy. As a philanthropic organization, we don’t have a lot of resources for advertising, so we reach people mainly by word of mouth, with posters at cancer centers, and through relationships with staff at cancer centers. A patient or caregiver can simply go to the Sailing Heals website and register as a VIP Guest; a cancer care provider can register their patient with that person’s permission. Sailing Heals will work to match up the patient with an event in their area. There are about 20 ports currently involved with Sailing Heals. Most of the outings are run out of yacht clubs, organized by people who are believers in our mission. It’s a big volunteer effort, and we’re so grateful for the enthusiasm of the host captains and the yacht clubs. A typical day involves a nice lunch for the VIP Guests, who can bring a caregiver or friend, and the captains and organizers, followed by a sail. The excursions usually last for two to three hours, depending on the weather and how everyone is feeling. People usually have the time of their lives.

AC: What is it about being on the ocean that creates a positive healing experience for people who have undergone cancer treatment?

Dr. Wirth: What I hear from my own patients and other participants at Sailing Heals events is that there’s something very restorative about being out in nature after one’s life has been engulfed by the cancer experience. It’s an opportunity to get away from it all in a way that’s exciting, on a beautiful boat on the water on a brisk sunny day. It’s not just an escape from the difficult reality of dealing with cancer, it’s truly healing.

I had a patient who had undergone really rigorous treatment for head and neck cancer. I saw her shortly after her sail and she was just glowing. She said of her sail, “For the first time all year, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and stopping thinking about all the things I was missing because of my cancer. Instead, I finally had a chance to think about all the things that I could start doing again.”

Trying something new, like sailing, can also be a very empowering experience after cancer treatment. One VIP Guest had just finished surgery, radiation, and adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer. During the sail, the captain offered her the helm. She looked at this big fancy boat and this big steering wheel and said she couldn’t do it, she was too nervous, but the captain insisted. And she did it; she drove the boat! It helped her feel empowered about overcoming her cancer and getting her life back. Sailing is a great challenge, and it’s very rewarding to take the helm and take control.

AC: If a person who has never sailed before is interested in testing the waters, so to speak, what would you recommend for a great beginner experience?

Dr. Wirth: Just do it and have a blast. Go with someone who knows what they’re doing, but don’t be afraid to grab the tiller.

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