At first glance, neuro-oncology nursing and law enforcement don’t have much in common. But for Eric Filiput, BSN, operations manager of the Gamma Knife Center at Siteman Cancer Center and a former volunteer officer for the St. Louis County Police Department, they share a purpose. “I guess I just like to help people,” he said. “It’s in my blood.” His passion for service keeps him going as he presides over the Gamma Knife command post, supporting patients and ensuring that their treatments run smoothly.
Gamma Knife is a form of radiation surgery that can eliminate brain tumors. It’s a painless procedure that requires no surgical incisions – instead, the machine beams gamma radiation to tumors in an intensely concentrated dose. Each year, the program at Siteman sees more than 300 patients from across the region. The many cases, and their complex nature, require a high level of performance from the staff. Filiput keeps everyone on track. “He’s the best manager I’ve ever worked for,” nurse Katelyn Touchette said. Ralph Dacey, MD, Neurosurgeon-in-Chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, observed that “With Eric’s leadership, the Gamma Knife Center is safe, effective, and very patient-centric.”
Filiput’s patients agree. Roy Aldridge, who has undergone three Gamma Knife procedures since 2015, felt immense gratitude for “his buddy Eric.” He recalled how Filiput went out of his way to reassure him before his first treatment, standing by his hospital bed and telling him, “Buddy, we’re going to get you through this.” “That meant the world to me,” Aldridge said. “It gave me hope.” Sharon Hisey, a recent Gamma Knife patient, found that Filiput put her nerves at ease. “White coat syndrome doesn’t exist when you’re with Eric,” she said. “He’s one of those people you never forget.”
Filiput is an affable, energetic presence with boundless knowledge about radiation surgery and the hospital. On a recent morning, he took a call from a doctor needing advice, told a nurse where she could find a notary for her patient, and encouraged another patient who had just finished the Gamma Knife procedure. “You look great!” he called. “Even better without that thing on your head.” (Gamma Knife patients sometimes wear a head frame in order to keep their heads still during the delivery of radiation.)
A graduate of Truman State University, Filiput has spent his 30-year career at Barnes and Siteman. He was drawn to the “clean” anatomy of the brain, he said, and gained experience in neurosurgery and radiation surgery. In 1992, he helped found the neuro-oncology tumor board, a forum for doctors and practitioners to collaborate on difficult cases. But in 1996, he decided he had enough free time to join the police force as a volunteer officer. “I didn’t have a motorcycle, didn’t skydive,” Filiput said. “This was my hobby. I don’t sit still very well.”
Police work had long been an area of interest for Filiput. At Truman State, he’d taken a few law enforcement classes in addition to his nursing curriculum. The influence of his brother-in-law, an officer, and the exciting stories told by other officers who belonged to his fishing club, the St. Louis County Bass Masters, finally inspired him to enroll in the Police Academy.
As an officer, primarily in the Fourth precinct in South County, Filiput would work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as for special occasions. He assisted full-time officers during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999 and presidential debates at Washington University in 2000 and 2004. “I never got to see the debates, but at least the parking lot was secure,” he quipped.
Well-versed in potential harm to the brain, Filiput encountered a different kind of danger on patrol. He was once involved in a confrontation with an armed suspect, who dropped his weapon when Filiput reacted calmly. “I knew I was scared, but you just work through it,” he said, recalling late-night traffic stops and interactions with violent offenders. “You just do the job.” Filiput received a department award in 1998 for his skillful handling of the armed encounter.
His background as a nurse sometimes proved useful while he was on the beat. On one occasion, he performed CPR on an asthmatic child who had stopped breathing, fighting to keep him alive until the ambulance came. When the paramedics struggled to start the child’s IV, he did it himself and then accompanied the boy to the hospital in the ambulance. At the end of the day, he said, “You hope you did good.”
Filiput’s time as an officer coincided with the early years of the Gamma Knife program. Barnes-Jewish first purchased the technology in 1998, and Filiput was put in charge of the fledgling department. He’s overseen two decades of growth, with dramatic increases in the number of patients treated and the variety of services offered. Over the years, he’s learned to operate four different generations of Gamma Knife machines, each more sophisticated than the last.
The long man hours required to oversee the Gamma Knife Center, coupled with increasing family obligations, meant that Filiput eventually had to give up his hobby. He left the police department in 2007 but finds that his role with Gamma Knife incorporates his favorite aspect of police work. The Gamma Knife staff, like the police department, form a strong, devoted team. “All my staff are phenomenal. Everyone brings an extra piece to the puzzle, and that makes the whole team better,” he said.
And, of course, his mission hasn’t changed. Filiput serves as a helper and protector for his patients, guiding them through the Gamma Knife process with frequent jokes and simple explanations of the procedure and the equipment. “The patients always enjoy talking with him, and the corny brain jokes are on constant repeat,” nurse Carina McNutt said. Filiput’s humor was especially appealing to Roy Aldridge. “Eric could tell I enjoyed playing around and kidding and played up to that,” he said. “He goes over and beyond expectations.” Sharon Hisey described Filiput as “warm and witty” at her recent treatment. “His bedside manner is phenomenal and his knowledge is superior,” she said.
For Filiput, good information is often the key to reassurance and comfort. “The doctors talk at this level,” he said, gesturing to the ceiling. “We’ll bring the verbiage down a little more so the patients understand.”