After breaking ground on a cancer center that is Omaha's largest public-private project, a cast of citizens broke bread — and occasionally broke out in laughter.
It's not that they cracked up over cancer, a topic that is hardly funny. But there was a confidence in the room, a good feeling that we are on our way to a great change.
“As cancer patients,” civic leader Walter Scott said, “the most alarming thing, maybe the most terrifying words that can be said to us, are: 'You have cancer.' As philanthropists, the words that scare us are 'Dr. Maurer has a new idea.' ”
The quip drew a roar of laughter from the 500 or so at a dinner last week at the CenturyLink Center.
Dr. Harold Maurer, who knows how to wedge his way into the wallets of the wealthy like Walter, has overseen an unprecedented campus expansion as chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Last week ground was broken on a $370 million cancer center.
What Lee Simmons has meant to the zoo, Scott said, Hal Maurer has meant to medicine. Both, he said, can take back-of-the-envelope ideas and turn them into “plans of excellence.”
Sir Walter said that if UNMC and its hospital partner, the Nebraska Medical Center, were a private business, it would be Omaha's sixth Fortune 500 company. The new cancer center will only make it more valuable.
“Omaha is home to this new and exciting business — the business of healing,” Scott said. “And the value of that, my friends, is priceless.”
The first time I heard about this project was 3½ years ago, when Dr. Ken Cowan, director of UNMC's Eppley Cancer Center, projected slides at a dinner proposing a $175 million “cancer campus.”
My interest was personal as well as journalistic.
In 2004, surgeons at the med center removed an inch-long tumor from my stomach, and since then I've had clean CT scans and oncology checkups. (I've lucked out, not needing chemotherapy or radiation.)
Practically every family is affected by cancer. And what I heard Ken talking about that night in September 2009 was startlingly new. I immediately wrote about UNMC's “latest dazzling plan.”
The economy was feeling the effects of the recession, and the plan had to percolate. It also grew, more than doubling its original size and cost estimate, much of which will be paid from donations.
And it will carry a good Omaha name: Buffett.
No, not that of world-famous investor Warren Buffett. It will be the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.
Fred, who died of cancer at 60, was Warren's cousin, and Pamela was a long-ago baby sitter to Warren's children.
Warren attended last Tuesday's banquet on the evening of the groundbreaking, as did Pam, who lives in California.
He recalled telling his cousin Fred, “Have I got a girl for you,” and saying that she was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.
The couple married, invested early with Warren and became wealthy. Pam is donating a hefty chunk of Buffett money to help build the cancer center.
“Now we are embarked on this great medical project,” Warren told the audience. “The building is going to be magnificent.”
The 82-year-old chairman of Berkshire Hathaway was treated at UNMC last year for prostate cancer. He said he got to know many “cheerful, able” doctors, nurses, technicians and others.
The new center will place researchers and clinicians in close proximity to one another and put a premium on individualized care based on each patient's genes.
“We have the ingredients,” Warren said, “for a cancer center that's going to be as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, just as Pam Buffett is.”
He stepped off the stage and warmly embraced her. It was that kind of night, full of personal, inspiring comments.
Susie Buffett, Warren's daughter, recalled becoming ill with excruciating pain at age 8 when her parents were away.
Fred carried her to his car and drove her to Children's Hospital, then on the UNMC campus. By the time her parents arrived the next morning, she was “minus one appendix.”
The place where Fred took her 52 years ago, she noted last week, is the exact spot where the cancer center will be built. She called that coincidence as another convergence of their lives that “was meant to be.”
Many individuals, corporations and foundations donated to the cancer center, and state, city and county taxpayers are paying part of the cost. Donors and their families, as well as elected officials, attended the banquet.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Afterward, I approached Dr. Cowan, whom I first heard talking about the project 44 months ago. The vision grew in the interim, but what remains is the notion of personalized, gene-based cancer treatment.
“We'll look at your genes and decide not only what drug, but how much,” he said. “We'll tailor it specifically, and it will be precise. One-size-fits-all is so far in the past.”
Placing researchers and clinicians closely together, he said, will be a big plus that famous cancer centers will find hard to match.
Ken expressed amazement that the money for the project was raised largely in the past 16 months.
Recruiting is crucial to college football coaches, but recruiting more than 100 physicians to this university's cancer center over the next few years is so important, he said, that it will take place “day and night.”
The cancer center is expected to pay great dividends from the large investment in, as Walter Scott put it, the business of healing.
Said Dr. Cowan: “To make something like this happen, it was really the right time, the right place, the right people and the right community.”
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