The Business of Giving
Dazzling donations create medical miracles

“Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
— Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

It may seem that every noble cause for which humans were called upon to give is now in the hands of a government program. Government feeds the poor, houses the poor. Government pays for the elderly to visit a doctor, provides a shuttle to carry them back and forth.

Certainly this is an improvement on Dickens’ day, when the poor found themselves in workhouses, and those stricken with disease or injury died — sometimes on doorsteps.

Yes, it is our money, but we are removed from the giving. After all, why give if the government is doing everything?

And yet, the government often proves itself incapable of the job. Children have been abused in foster care, veterans have spent weeks and months awaiting care, the mentally ill are on the streets, and the desperately ill are refused a treatment because it’s experimental.

There is always room for human hands — and individual’s wallets.

For instance, let’s say your heart is damaged and failing. You could go on a transplant list for an indefinite period of time. Or, with the help of even one private investor, you could receive a therapy to grow new cardiac cells and regenerate your heart.

Let’s say you’re an American soldier plucked from a roadside in Iraq where the effects of an explosion are bleeding your life away, minute by minute. You could be whisked as fast as possible to a trauma center miles away. Maybe you make it there alive; maybe you don’t. Or, with the help of one investor, you could be treated with a bandage chemically treated with a clotting agent that will stop the bleeding in its tracks right now, allowing time to get you to a hospital.

Both are examples of medical advances that would not have come without human hands — and private wallets.

Why didn’t the government come up with it by itself?

Researchers familiar with the workings of government grants say the government is like a risk-averse investor. It award grants for research and development of new cures, but not until it is sure the innovation will work.

And convincing the government that something works, well, that takes research and development.

And of course, research and development takes lab space and equipment and, most expensive of all, personnel with expertise.

“We start with an idea and a lot of hand waving and writing on a white board, but for competitive grants, you must take it further. You need scientific evidence that it will work, good preliminary data,” says Ken Gregory, head of Oregon Medical Laser Center at Portland’s Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

The need, then, is for seed money that will produce a working prototype, Gregory says. After that, the hoped-for government grant funds full clinical trials. If the trials prove the cure, propagation comes next.

“You have to be armed with that promising data to compete for, say, a Department of Defense grant. There’s plenty of competition for grants,” Gregory says.

Once the evidence is gathered using seed money of a few hundred thousand dollars, the yield can be millions in government grant funds.

“Grants from the government are always preceded by a gift from the community,” Gregory says. Individual gifts — collected through trusts and foundations — have prompted $30 million in government grants to develop a surgical laser system to fuse tissues together after cancer surgery and to break up stroke- and heart attack-causing blood clots.

Gregory says the new technology has been worth every penny. “It actually vaporizes the clot,” he says. “If we can see people walk out of a hospital two days after a stroke as a result, that’s very exciting.”

But it begins with seeds. And that’s where the Loackers and the Gills come in, local families who dig deep to provide seed money that will make the next treatment, cure, therapy — the next hope — reachable.

Frank Gill, former Intel executive vice president, who along with his wife Mary is all about doing what he can to put cures in reach for others, ironically ended up being one of his own beneficiaries.

Gill was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years after making a donation in 2000 that made a new robotic surgery suite available in Portland, the only one in the state. The technology has fine-tuned surgical technique, cutting recovery time and lessening the potential for complications. “I feel good to be walking around cancer-free today,” Gill says.

And he’s seen the results of his contributions in others, too. Like the soldier shot in the jaw while on active duty, treated with the anti-hemorrhage bandage made from a chemical compound that comes from shrimp shells. “He should have been dead — would have been dead,” says Gill. “I mean, bandages to that point hadn’t advanced since the Civil War in terms of technological innovation. This is quite profound. I don’t know how many thousands of lives have been saved in wars going on around the planet. And to think one day, they’ll be in your local grocery store, this technology developed at St. Vincent.”

And there’s plenty more going on. There’s OX-40, a cancer drug that Gill says ramps up your immune system to attack cancer, a discovery in clinical trials because of gifts from private individuals like the Gills.

Gill admits he was ambivalent about which causes to support when he retired. The Gills had often supported at-risk kids’ programs and private education funding — things that were a passion for them. But when it came to other potential causes, Gill says he was lost until a friend told him medical research was “real interesting.”

An understatement. “I guess I’ve become infatuated with it,” Gill says.

But beyond what medical science can do, and the feeling of great satisfaction Gill says he gets from being a part of it, is witnessing the generosity of others.

“I am absolutely dazzled and amazed at the generosity of people,” he says. “There are people who just give an awful lot.”

It’s something Gill has thought more about since the election. “There was so much election rhetoric about the upper 5 percent of society and how evil they are, when most of the money that is given is from that evil 5 percent.”

The infatuation with giving has already rubbed off on the Gills’ daughter, who while offered better money to take a job as a teacher in a public school opted for a private school job because she felt she could do more good there. “She’s a do-gooder at heart,” Gill says.

Lynn and Jack Loacker, of Southwest Portland, are also do-gooders and partners of the Gills in the Providence Together campaign, which raises money for numerous research projects. Neither Loacker comes from a medical science background. Lynn comes from food product development and Jack from 30 years in the Air National Guard. Both are retired now, combining a full slate of volunteer work with quiet moments at their Newberg-area vineyard.

Their $1 million gift has attracted enough additional grants to put Oregon on the map for regenerative science, where a patient’s own cells are used to rebuild everything from nerves and spinal cords to hearts.

The procedure takes cells from a patient’s own bone marrow, cells that can be converted to, say, act as new nerve cells to prevent paralysis after spinal cord injury — something that might have aided Christopher Reeve, the “Superman” actor injured in an equestrian accident.

“Based on the gift, we’ve been able to use the services of a specialist from Walter Reed Hospital in spinal surgery. It’s only been a year and we’re already planning clinical trials,” Gregory says.

The same technology could well be used to regenerate your heart after a heart attack, Gregory says.

Potentially closer to home for the Loackers is their support for cancer research. Both have suffered from confrontations with cancer — she from Hodgkin’s Disease and he from esophageal cancer. Both are in remission.

Their donations have been the building blocks for the $74 million Franz Cancer Research Center at Providence, which has drawn researchers from all over the world to work on cures for cancer. Both Loackers allowed themselves to be used as protocol testers for new techniques. For Lynn, it was a new product aimed at quelling the nausea that comes with chemotherapy. It worked. For Jack, it was a new combination of treatments that hunted down his cancer.

“When you see something like OX-40 going from the Petri dish to patients, the whole translational research part, that’s exciting,” Lynn says. “The interesting part of it was that they were studying multiple sclerosis, using it to suppress MS when they thought, ‘Maybe this could be used for cancer.’”

While Providence spokespeople describe the Loackers’ and the Gills’ gifts to medical research as “large” by anyone’s measure, both couples say even the smallest of donations will help the cause.

“Whether it’s $2 or $2 million, when the government is cutting back on grants, every penny counts, every penny helps,” Lynn says.

Living through her own experiences with cancer and her husband’s brush as well, Lynn says she has changed how she views life.

“I think you begin to value those little things in life more,” she says. “Simple things like your relationships with people, where you realize you’ve got to stop and say hello and take time to be with people, and not be just dashing off to the next event or meeting. You get a different perspective on what’s important.”

How many days until Christmas?

By Lisa Baker

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