At the new Cowell Cancer Center, the focus is ‘patient centered care’

By on February 3, 2024

The main entrance to the new Cowell Cancer Center. (Photo by Kip Tabb/OBV)

The newly opened Cowell Cancer Center has consolidated all the Outer Banks Health cancer services under one roof in a 15,000 square foot state-of-the art building across the street from the hospital in Nags Head. The result, says Radiation Oncologist Dr. Charles Shelton, at the Cowell Center, is a better patient experience with the potential for better outcomes.

“At the center of the model is…patient centered care,” he said.  When you have a facility like this, where everything is in one spot, it really emphasizes that model.”

Dr. Shelton has been leading hospital’s cancer center for more than 10 years and he admits it has been frustrating at times. “Human communication was a barrier…to care because everything was so disjointed. You’ve got one office here and another office there and in the world of cancer, if you have that kind of barrier, it just makes it that much more challenging,” he said.

It has taken a while to get to where the Cowell Center is today. The first wing of the facility was completed in 2019—the south end that houses the radiation therapy treatment center. After completing the south wing, the plan was to create a facility that would house all cancer services in one building. A capital campaign was moving forward to raise the approximately $6 million needed when the fund received a significant donation from Carol Cowell in 2022 in memory of her husband, Ed, who had passed away in 2021.

The Outer Banks is considered a rural community and to have a facility where all treatments are consolidated in one building is rare in a rural setting. “What we’ve done, I think in the Outer Banks, is we’ve removed the rural barrier by having all this in one spot and by making the communication and in the process better,” Dr. Shelton said. “You don’t think of it as a rural cancer program anymore. You think of this as something you have anywhere in America, like, big city America.”

The importance of having services and health care providers in one location is important, Dr. Shelton noted, in patient care.

“If the people next door are seeing a patient [and] they want me to come see them now because of something they’re worried about, I can hop right over,” he said. “I can take minutes out of what I’m doing and go do that instead of waiting to reschedule that patient a week away until it fits in my schedule.”

As important as the medical and treatment implications are for the new facility, there has also been a concerted effort to create a more comfortable experience for the patient and their friends and family.

Jennifer Schwartzenberg, Director of Community Outreach and Development for the hospital, knows first-hand how important that is, having undergone successful treatment for breast cancer before the expansion.

Describing the support group that sometimes comes with the patient as “a little entourage,” she goes on to point out how well designed the facility is for that entourage as well as the patient.

“It’s welcoming,” she said. “There’s a guest chair [at the treatment site], but they can also come sit out [in the lobby] or they can go sit out in the garden. There [are] options, because sometimes you’re here for five, six hours.”

The garden is an important part of the design of the building. The entrance to the building will have flowering plants as the weather warms. The exam rooms look out to a healing garden.

There are other steps that have been taken to improve the patient experience. The infusion room in particular has some features that even in larger treatment centers are not included.

The infusion center is where chemotherapy is administered and unlike many centers, the room gives patients the option of drawing a curtain around their chair, creating a semi-private space, or if they prefer, to allow family and friends to be there in a more public setting.

“Most cancer centers that do that type of infusion…they have chairs lined up almost like a factory,” Dr. Shelton said. “If you go in the new one they built at Norfolk Sentara, [it] is just a giant room with chair after chair, after chair. It looks like a bunch of sardines in a can of tuna. There’s no privacy.”

The nurses’ station in the infusion room is placed in the center of the room providing better access for health care providers and patients. (Photo by Kip Tabb/OBV)

Schwartzenberg also pointed to a “cold cap” used to cool the scalp during chemotherapy to reduce the loss of hair. The medicines used in chemotherapy attack warmer cells and hair follicles tend to be warm. But the cold cap is an important part of treatment, so much so that there have been patients coming from other areas, senior administrator of operations at Outer Banks Health, Amy Montgomery noted.

“We’ve actually had patients come here from Virginia because we have the scalp cooling therapy,” she said.

There are some services that are not available at the Cowell Center. “Some things we can’t do. There are some of the [specialized] surgical interventions…we will never do in this community. We don’t have the specialists to do that,” Montgomery said.

But, she added, after surgery, the center can provide needed care.

“Even if a patient is diagnosed here and then goes somewhere else for surgery, our physicians can connect back with those surgeons and work with them.” The patient “can return back here and have their chemotherapy, the radiation therapy and all those supportive care services,” she said.

And that, for Montgomery, is the goal of the new facility—placing the patient in the center of how treatment is administered.

“It’s not just a transaction,” she said. “It’s not just you’re here to get your treatment. You’re here to feel better and we want you to feel comfortable while you’re here.”



  • lippy

    The quality of medical care on the beach has been improving and this is a major step forward. Hoping to see a continued trend in the future.

    Sunday, Feb 4 @ 11:21 am
  • Jay

    Many thanks to all the folks who made this new cancer center possible.

    I hope this is a sign our hospital is going to continue improving services. Next week I’m going to ECU in Greenville NC for an evaluation and possible robotic surgery there. Our hospital does not have the robotic capability to perform this minimally invasive surgery.

    Monday, Feb 5 @ 10:48 am
  • Barbara Hird Camas

    I have been a cancer patient at OBX Hospital since 2018 and even though everything was scattered – in terms of building/treatment locations, I have received nothing but excellent care administered by caring, courteous, and good natured staff at all levels. The new cancer center is such a boon to our area and I am grateful to all the people who made this happen. I have not seen the new center yet – but I will on my next scheduled visit and I am looking forward to seeing all those bright, shining, smiling faces in their wonderful new facility. Thank you to each and every one of you.

    Wednesday, Feb 7 @ 5:42 pm