A DAY IN THE LIFE OF JOSEPH BENEVENIA
Words by Maryann Littell / Photographs by John Emerson
Nine-year-old Marissa Walker complains of a sore leg after a vigorous game of soccer. At first her parents aren’t concerned, attributing it to fatigue or a pulled muscle. Over the next few weeks, however, the pain intensifies and she develops a pronounced limp. They see a doctor and their nightmare begins.
That’s where Joseph Benevenia comes in. The orthopaedic surgeon specializes in treating bone, joint and soft tissue tumors, including benign, malignant and secondary cancers. He’s seen more than his share of difficult, even heartbreaking cases. Fortunately for Marissa and scores of other patients, Benevenia’s ‘think outside the box’ approach can work miracles when cancer strikes.
Benevenia’s roots at UMDNJ go deep. An alumnus of NJMS, he also completed his orthopaedics residency at University Hospital (UH). Following a fellowship in orthopaedic oncology/pathology at Case Western Reserve University, he returned to NJMS in 1991. The department, with 24 faculty members plus several physician assistants and nurses, also specializes in trauma, conditions of the spine, pediatric joint and bone conditions, hand and microvascular surgery and foot and ankle surgery. Subspecialty interests include bone and soft-tissue tumors, allograft and endoprosthetic reconstructions, and limb-salvage surgeries. UMDNJ Magazine spent a day with Benevenia, observing him interact with staff, teach residents and care for patients like Marissa Walker, who travels from Connecticut for treatment. In her case, what initially looked like a sports injury turned out to be a serious malignant tumor. Read on to learn how Benevenia saved her leg, and possibly her life.
Oncology case conferences offer Benevenia and his team an opportunity to discuss the complex cases that come their way. This intense question-and-answer session is prime time for training the department’s 29 orthopaedic surgery residents and three fellows.
Using X-rays, Benevenia discusses the removal of a malignant tumor of the upper arm, which was followed by reconstruction. The department is known for its work in limb salvage surgery, which involves removal of a malignant tumor and any other diseased tissue, then reconstruction of the limb with either a bone graft, artificial bone or joint replacement. Bone or soft tissue sarcomas have always been among the most dreaded of all cancers. In the recent past, treatment often involved amputation of the affected limb. Not anymore. The newest generation of implants has greatly improved treatment options. Most implants are constructed of titanium alloys for strength and lined with plastic to serve as artificial cartilage. These devices enable many patients to make a full functional and cosmetic recovery.
Benevenia and team members (residents John Koerner, MD, standing left, and Heather Kong, MD, right, and Francis Patterson, MD) meet with bioengineer George Makris (right), who demonstrates prosthetic devices in high-tech ‘show and tell’ sessions.
The afternoon is devoted to seeing patients. Benevenia follows many of them for years, including 65-year-old Adrianne Giovanielli, here with her husband. A large malignant mass was found on her humerus several years ago during a routine checkup. Benevenia removed the tumor and a portion of the surrounding bone, replacing it with an implant. In March 2009 a second mass formed in the same location and was removed. Bottom photo: Benevenia and the Giovaniellis with physician assistant Susan Merritt (left) and resident John Koerner, MD (second from left).
Benevenia checks patient Marissa Walker, now 11. In 2009 Marissa was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma in her left femur. “The first doctor we saw said her leg would have to be amputated,” says her dad Pete, a former major league baseball player. “That wasn’t the option we were looking for.” Following consults with other physicians, including a trip to St. Jude’s, the famed children’s cancer hospital, the family found its way to Benevenia, who said the leg could be saved. He removed the tumor and surrounding bone, including the knee joint, and replaced it with an expandable prosthesis.
Benevenia explains to Marissa and her dad how her prosthesis ‘grows’ as she does. Every few months she’s taken to the operating room, where a magnet encircles the prosthesis, lengthening it. The procedure is non-invasive. “He’s a great doctor,” says Marissa. “I like him so much I named my dog Benny after him!” Marissa’s running is limited and she walks with a slight limp. She swims and plays golf and is an ace pitcher on her softball team. Medical secretary Marie Solimo (left) sets up a new appointment.
At the end of the day, Benevenia unwinds by creating art. A selftaught welder, he constructs his sculptures using everything from discarded surgical instruments to junkyard findings. His work has been displayed at many exhibitions and he’s currently producing a sculpture for the NJMS-UH Cancer Center on the Newark campus. His studio is in a converted garage at his home. After spending the workday with patients, staff and students, the most important part of Benevenia’s life is his family: wife Laureen; daughters Nicole, Angela, Marisa and Jaclyn; and sons Michael and Samuel.