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Giving & Healing

21st Century Healthcare Philanthropy

American Red Cross staff member Kathryn Anderson prepares to take a blood donation from Ellie Cheung.

Photo by Amanda Romney - American Red Cross

By Paul Harasim

How Melinda Gates, the wife of billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates, defines philanthropy certainly rings true in the world of medicine and healthcare.

Philanthropy is not about the money. It’s about using whatever resources you have at your fingertips and applying them to improve the world.

Yes, while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, fueled by profits from Microsoft, the American multinational technology colossus, has been able to donate more than $40 billion to humanitarian causes around the globe – much of it targeted toward wiping out communicable diseases – Las Vegan Jacob McCulloch was able, in 2015, to make a living donation of a kidney to a friend on dialysis, Brandon Moran.

“He was my best friend, like family, so I figured why not,” McCulloch told me while I was a medical writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I really didn’t think about it much. I read you can live normally with one kidney, so why wouldn’t I want to give a friend his quality of life back.”

Directly translated, the Greek term philanthropy means “love of mankind,” which we interpret today as an active effort to promote human welfare through an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes. So goes medical philanthropy, where both un-moneyed altruism and the positive power of well-intentioned dollars are critical to everything from research to the literal saving of lives.

“Medicine can always use more money for things like research and more involvement of people simply trying to help their fellow man,” notes UNLV School of Medicine Founding Dean Dr. Barbara Atkinson, a member of the National Academy of Medicine, who, in 2016, helped secure a $3 million gift for the new medical school’s operations from the United Health Foundation.

Medical philanthropy played a key role in the opening of the first center in Nevada to combine all three legs of the autism support stool – diagnostics, research, and support – in one building at one time. The center’s namesake, Gary Ackerman, contributed generously to open what is now known as the UNLV Medicine Ackerman Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Solutions – with Grant a Gift Autism Foundation acting as the fundraising arm of the center.

During two decades as a medical writer, I have come to realize how philanthropy is indispensable to the nation’s medical well-being on many different fronts. For instance: the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation – nourished by the multibillion dollar gambling empire of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson – funded more than $110 million in important research grants over a recent five-year period. In 2018, President Trump presented Dr. Adelson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her work in addiction treatment, philanthropy, and innovative research.

Meanwhile, Judith Ariola donated her time to research studies at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, serving as a control participant. This means that her normal cognitive function (found through testing) gives researchers something to compare with.

“We call her and others our citizen researchers,” says Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, director of the Ruvo Center. “They are critical to what we do.”

“The only way we’re going to get a cure is for people to step up and help,” Ariola, who lost her father to dementia, explains. “The testing, including PET scans and MRIs, doesn’t bother me.”

When it comes to research, the Federal Government, largely under the auspices of the financially challenged National Institutes of Health, can’t do it all – U.S. science suffers from booms and busts in funding. In fact, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device firms continue to be the largest contributor to biomedical research, contributing more than half of all research funding, which raises conflict of interest concerns. With that in mind, researchers are always hopeful that not-for-profit/donor philanthropy will account for more than the 4 or 5 percent of funding it has provided over the last few years. Repeatedly, they point to many successes, including scientists at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research proving DNA is the chemical basis of heredity, which kicked off the subsequent revolution in molecular biology that is still transforming medicine, including cancer research. Inside Philanthropy reports that during a recent five-year period, individual donors in the western U.S. were the most generous toward medical research efforts, handing out nearly $1.4 billion.

The more you think about medical philanthropy, the more its breadth boggles the mind. In addition to funds and volunteers used in research, there are blood and organ donations, scholarships for medical students, volunteers who work with patients at hospitals, medical personnel who donate their time and skill, funding for hospital outreach – on and on it goes. Dinorah Arambula, who had a successful kidney transplant from an anonymous donor in 2011, now donates her time to getting the word out about kidney disease and kidney donation.

“She talks to people in schools, in hospitals, wherever she can, and she makes sure she takes care of herself to show how thankful she is that someone donated an organ that gave her a better life,” says Dr. John Ham, the UNLV Medicine transplant surgeon who is also medical director for UMC’s Center for Transplantation.

Then there are physicians who donate their expertise both at home and abroad, offering care that otherwise wouldn’t be provided.

Never forgetting that a physician provided free medical care to her low-income family in Los Angeles when she was a little girl, Dr. Florence Jameson did fundraising within many sectors of the medical establishment to open up a Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada Clinic in 2010. Two years later, it was providing 6,000 free patient visits annually for people without insurance, drawing from a pool of about 750 volunteers – physicians, nurses, pharmacists, medical assistants, clerks, and housekeepers. Now Jameson, whose specialty is OB-GYN, has two clinics in Las Vegas and also provides free dental care to the uninsured. The dental clinic is under the volunteer supervision of Dr. Lydia Wright.

“When a doctor treats you the way the doctor did my family, you dream of giving back,” Jameson says.

Las Vegas physician Dr. Warren Volker led a volunteer medical mission of physicians and nurses to Puerto Rico in the wake of the 2017 killer hurricane. “The people there needed help,” he explains. That is the same explanation given by UNLV School of Medicine physicians Dr. Joseph Thornton, a gastroenterologist, and Dr. John Menezes, a reconstructive plastic surgeon, for participating in medical missions to the Philippines.

Closer to home, many people in Las Vegas donate blood for the same reason I do – there was a time when they, or a loved one or a friend, needed blood to survive.

The American Red Cross reports that in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, there were 21,764 blood donations made in Southern Nevada. Vitalant, formerly United Blood Services, points out that about 1 in 6 area hospital patients needs blood.

The Engelstad Family Foundation in Las Vegas – made possible by the business acumen of the late Ralph Engelstad, who owned the Imperial Palace casino-hotels in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi – is particularly active in medical philanthropy. Last year, it contributed $10 million to the St. Rose Dominican Health Foundation for a program which allows Dignity Health-St. Rose Dominican Hospitals to provide lifesaving breast cancer detection and treatment to thousands of Southern Nevadans who lack adequate health care resources or the financial means to obtain them. Engelstad’s daughter, Kris Engelstad McGarry, who has survived two bouts with cancer and serves as the face of the foundation, says she has a great job.

“I give away hope,” she says. “There’s no greater job on Earth.”

In addition to its work with St. Rose, the Engelstad Family Foundation has provided millions of dollars in scholarships to medical students at both the UNLV School of Medicine and the Touro University of Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine in Henderson. Heavy debt frequently causes medical students to select higher paying specialties, contributing to the state’s lack of primary care physicians. That realization prompted Las Vegan Arlene Kageyama-Chikami to set up an endowment this year in her name and that of her late husband, Richard Chikami, which will provide scholarships for UNLV School of Medicine students for years to come.

Shelley Berkley, the CEO of Touro, says philanthropy has been good to her medical school, funding many aspects of the institution, including an autism clinic and three mobile health clinics.

Last year, Touro unveiled its third mobile health clinic, which provides primary care to low income seniors in the Las Vegas Valley. Generous donations from City National Bank, the Vegas Golden Knights, Zappos, and Findlay RV made it possible.

“Medical philanthropy will continue to grow,” she says. “People understand the need for it in Southern Nevada today.”

Dr. Sabbaugh of the Ruvo Center, which opened its doors in 2010, certainly hopes people understand the need. In May, the center launched a $100 million endowment campaign to support the center’s long-term sustainability, with funds used in part for free caregiver support services and to advance clinical programs and research, while also attracting the world’s top clinicians and scientists. If you think the campaign is overly ambitious, keep in mind that the center’s annual Power of Love gala has raised over $300 million, including a $1 million donation in 2017 from Las Vegan and former tennis great Andre Agassi.

Jean Georges, who lost her husband to Alzheimer’s Disease, certainly understands the need for medical philanthropy. At 87, she still volunteers at the Ruvo Center, counseling families whose loved ones have Alzheimer’s. Gar Matson, 81, and Brenda Matson, 79, also understand the need, donating their time to play with sick children at UMC Children’s Hospital, which also provides a Canine Comfort Program, where trained dogs of volunteers visit the young patients.

Bren McClean says the canine program helped her daughter, who was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, relax.

“I firmly believe that my daughter, Anita, was able to come home earlier than expected from the hospital after the UMC canine comfort program dogs, Hope and Harper, visited as much as they did,” McClean says.

Perhaps nothing in Southern Nevada’s history of medical philanthropy struck an emotional chord like UMC’s first Honor Walk, which shows respect to patients at the end of life who are donating organs. You may have seen video clips of the May 22 walk on the evening news or read about it in the newspaper. Hundreds of nurses, physicians, staff, and medical students, many with tears in their eyes, stood silently in tribute as 18-year-old Michael Sigler made his final journey from the UMC Trauma Center to the operating room to donate his organs.

Sigler made his decision to become an organ donor about two months before he sustained critical injuries in a tragic May 17 motorcycle crash. The family of Sigler, who was left brain dead, decided to take him off of life support so his final wish, to save the lives of others through organ donation, could be fulfilled. Nine people have already been helped by his decision. His family hoped the Honor Walk would increase organ donation in a state that has more than 600 Nevadans waiting for the gift of life.

In 2017, more than 6,500 Americans died waiting for a precious organ.

“He saw the precious gift that life is,” Sigler’s mother, Courtney Kaplan, told the media. “He saw that there is a bigger picture.”

Grand opening of UNLV Ackerman Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Solutions.

Touro University of Nevada works with other non-profits during Project Homeless Connect, November 28, 2018.

On May 22, 2019 hundreds of UMC staff members lined up to honor motorcycle crash victim Michael Sigler who selflessly donated his organs.

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