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[David Ignatius] Philanthropy with a wallop

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Published : 2014-03-30 20:47
Updated : 2014-03-30 20:47

WASHINGTON ― Money may be the root of all evil, as the saying goes, but I was reminded last week of the overwhelming good it can do when put to work at a place like the Children’s National Health System here.

Big medicine, funded by the wealthiest and most generous philanthropists, is achieving astonishing breakthroughs. I was lucky enough to see some of them on a tour of the Joseph E. Robert Jr. Center for Surgical Care and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation. 

Robert died of brain cancer in 2011, but not before helping to raise the money for these remarkable facilities. Seeing what the donations have produced in just two years, in terms of potential breakthroughs, quite literally took my breath away.

Researchers described machines that can measure the pain of children who can’t put it into words; they showed me plans for robots that will reduce the time needed for suturing wounds to a tenth of what it would take, if done manually. They showed me ultrasound techniques that can destroy tumors with much greater precision than is possible with radiation.

Robert was a big, handsome man whose passion was helping children through medicine and education. An ex-boxer who had made a fortune in real estate, Robert organized “Fight Night,” an old-fashioned “smoker” where Washington’s rich and powerful ate and drank too much, puffed fat cigars, and watched over-the-hill pugilists. It might sound like a dubious enterprise, except for the fact that it raised tens of millions of dollars for good causes.

One scene will explain a lot about Robert. When he had his first radiation treatment for his brain cancer in 2009, he was fitted with a heavy metal mask to shield his face and neck. When they cranked him out of the radiation bay and removed the awful mask, Robert’s first words were, “They shouldn’t make children go through that.” He mobilized his money and his friends to deliver on that sweet and selfless insight.

Robert understood that breakthroughs in modern medicine are possible when different disciplines are gathered to combine forces, and he wanted to make Children’s National a center for excellence that could gather the best doctors, computer scientists, engineers and biologists from around the world. He and the hospital’s CEO, Dr. Kurt Newman, reckoned it would take $75 million to create this kind of center.

But when the 2008 financial crisis hit, that kind of money suddenly became scarce. So Robert asked for help from a very particular friend, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. In 2009, the UAE donated $150 million in the name of its late ruler, Zayed, to fund the center at Children’s National that Robert had imagined.

Walking the corridors of the hospital, you see what this money has accomplished. Dr. Julia Finkel describes the system she built that measures children’s pain: Where once kids could only point at faces that went from smile to frown to show how much it hurt, their pain can now be graphed in its intensity and kind. Down the hall, computer scientist Azad Shademan shows me the stitches made with incredible speed and precision by his robotic suturing tool. A few desks down, engineer Haydar Celik shows me how his noninvasive ultrasound radiation can make water bubble instantly ― and, in trials, burn away bone-cancer tumors.

In a conference room, Dr. Roger Packer explains his plans for a Healthy Mind and Brain Institute. Like the other wonders at this hospital, its mission will be to break down disciplinary barriers so that doctors and scientists can work together ― in this case, understanding the brain and treating its maladies. Engineering and science will combine to produce tools that can assess the genetic attributes of mind-brain problems, and image how brain pathways are responding to different treatments.

“We’re going to be able to intervene in ways we had no idea were possible,” Packer says. “Things that were thought were untreatable are now clearly treatable.” With early intervention, he says, it may even be possible to treat conditions that appeared to be genetically determined, such as schizophrenia, by altering the brain’s pathways.

Washington’s work is usually focused on such matters as politics, economics and foreign policy. And frankly, a lot of that Washington debate seems like a depressing dead end. So it was exhilarating to hear people talk about the life-changing achievements of medical research, and to remember people like Joe Robert who found the money to pay for this remarkable work. 

By David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. ― Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)

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