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Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

March 8, 2018 1 comment

Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Memory-makers.

That’s what former Husker gridiron great Jerry Murtaugh calls the ex-collegiate athletes whose exploits we recall with larger-than-life nostalgia.

Mythic-like hero portrayals aside, athletes are only human. Their bodies betray them. Medical interventions and other emergencies drain resources. Not every old athlete can pay pressing bills or afford needed care. That’s where the Nebraska Greats Foundation Murtaugh began five years ago comes in. The charitable organization assists memory-makers who lettered in a sport at any of Nebraska’s 15 universities or colleges.

“All the money we generate goes into helping the memory-makers and their families,” says Murtaugh.

Its genesis goes back to Murtaugh missing a chance to help ailing ex-Husker star Andra Franklin, who died in 2006. When he learned another former NU standout, Dave Humm, was hurting, he made it his mission to help. Murtaugh got Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to endorse the effort and write the first check.

“The foundation has been a source of financial aid to many former Huskers who are in need, but also, and maybe equally important, it has helped bind former players together in an effort to stay in touch and to serve each other. I sense a feeling of camaraderie and caring among out former players not present in many other athletic programs around the country,” Osborne says.

The foundation’s since expanded its reach to letter-winners from all Nebraska higher ed institutions.

By the start of 2018, more than $270,000 raised by the foundation went to cover the needs of 12 recipients. Three recipients subsequently died from cancer. As needed, NGF provides for the surviving spouse and children of memory-makers.

The latest and youngest grantee is also the first female recipient – Brianna Perez. The former York College All-America softball player required surgery for a knee injury suffered playing ball. Between surgery, flying to Calif. to see her ill mother, graduate school and unforeseen expenses, Perez went into debt.

“She found out about us, we reviewed her application and her bills were paid off,” NGF administrator Margie Smith says. “She cried and so did I.”

It’s hard for still proud ex-athletes to accept or ask for help, says all-time Husker hoops great Maurtice Ivy, who serves on the board. Yet they find themselves in vulnerable straits that can befall anyone. Giving back to those who gave so much, she says, “is a no-brainer.”

The hard times that visit these greats are heartbreaking. Some end up in wheelchairs, others homeless. Some die and leave family behind.

“I cry behind closed doors,” Murtaugh says. “One of the great ones we lost, a couple weeks before he passed away said, ‘All I’m asking is take care of my family.’ So, we’re doing our best. What I’m proud of is, we don’t leave them hanging. Our athlete, our brother, our sister has died and we just don’t stop there – we clear up all the medical bills the family faces. We’re there for them.”

“We become advocates, cheerleaders and sounding boards for them and their families,” Smith says. “I am excited when I write checks to pay their bills, thrilled when they make a full recovery and cry when they pass away. But we’re helping our memory makers through their time of need. Isn’t this what life is all about? “

Smith says the foundation pays forward what the athletes provided us in terms of feelings and memories.

“We all want to belong to something good. That is why the state’s collegiate sports programs are so successful.  We cheer our beloved athletes to do their best to make us feel good. We brag about the wins, cry over the losses. The outcome affects us because we feel a sense of belonging. These recipients gave their all for us. They served as role models.

“Now it’s our turn to take care of them.”

Murtaugh is sure it’s an idea whose time has come.

“Right now, I think we’re the only state that helps our former athletes,” he says. “Before I’m dead, I’m hoping every state picks up on this and helps their own because the NCAA isn’t going to help you after you’re done. We know that. And that’s what we’re here for – we need to help our own. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Monies raised go directly to creditors, not recipients.

He says two prominent athletic figures with ties to the University of Nebraska – Barry Alvarez, who played at NU and coached Wisconsin, where he’s athletic director, and Craig Bohl, who played and coached at NU, led North Dakota State to three national titles, and now coaches Wyoming – wish to start similar foundations .

Murtaugh and his board, comprised mostly of ex-athletes like himself, are actively getting the word out across the state end beyond to identify more potential recipients and raise funds to support them. He’s confident of the response.

“We’re going to have the money to help all the former athletes in the state who need our help, Athletes and fans are starting to really understand the impact they all make for these recipients. People have stepped up and donated a lot of money. A lot of people have done a lot of things for us. But we need more recipients. We have some money in the bank that needs to be used.”

Because Nebraska collegiate fan bases extend statewide and nationally, Murtaugh travels to alumni and booster groups to present about the foundation’s work. Everywhere he goes, he says, people get behind it.

“Nebraskans are the greatest fans in the country and they back their athletes in all 15 colleges and universities. It’s great to see. I’m proud to be part of this, I really am.”

Foundation fundraisers unite the state around a shared passion. A golf classic in North Platte last year featured the three Husker Heisman trophy winners – Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, Eric Crouch – for an event that raised $40,000. Another golf outing is planned for July in Kearney that will once more feature the Heisman trio.

Murtaugh envisions future events across the state so fans can rub shoulders with living legends and help memory-makers with their needs.

He sees it as one big “family” coming together “to help our own.”

Visit nebraskagreatsfoundation.org.

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BRAVO! Sing for the Cure

May 22, 2016 1 comment

I recently found a trove of stories I have written and had publshed in pint but that I had never gotten around to posting on my social media platforms – until now. This is one. It is about a charitable Opera Omaha concert from 2010 that was staged as a fundraiser in support of breast cancer awareness and research. The moving personal stories of survivors were integrated into the concert. The program was called Sing for the Cure. I wrote about it for Metro Magazine.(http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/).

 

BRAVO! Sing for the Cure


It used to be the mere mention of cancer connoted a fatal prognosis.Thanks to medical science advances, however, many forms of the disease are highly treatable and survivable today. While it’s true the “Big C” doesn’t mean a sure death sentence anymore, it’s still a scary, serious, and often life-threatening condition. Indeed, cancer is so prevalent in America that almost everyone at some point is affected by it directly or indirectly. The diagnosis, even the word, still conjures feelings of anxiety, fear, resentment and other intense emotions.

Genetic and lifestyle factors play a role, but cancer is largely indiscriminate in who it attacks. Everyone close to a cancer patient is impacted in one way or another. Behind every cancer case is a human story of life, pain, hope, and healing.

Art is a powerful medium for honoring life and death experiences, which is why Opera Omaha and the Nebraska Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure have partnered to present Sing for the Cure: A Proclamation of Hope.

Sing for the Cure concerts, like the Opera for the Cure, help raise awareness and funds for breast cancer care and research. Five dollars of each purchased ticket benefits Nebraska Komen. The performances, which kick off Opera Omaha’s 53rd season, coincide with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The dramatic, multimedia Opera for the Cure concerts are Omaha’s version of the Sing for the Cure programs. Sing for the Cure is a national program that has worked with the Komen foundation since 2000. “Opera for the Cure represents a great example of how two organizations, with completely different missions, can come together on a project that will have a powerful impact,” said Nebraska Komen Executive Director Lynette Farhart.

“While I have seen only a few of the pieces from the production, I am positive anyone who experiences Opera for the Cure will walk away inspired. It is a unique opportunity to further educate people about breast cancer as the production takes you through one woman’s journey. The production encapsulates the emotions experienced from diagnosis to treatment and recovery, and ends with a message of hope. You will walk away wanting to make a difference.”

“Throughout this emotional performance Opera Omaha will pay tribute to survivors and their families, as well as to those we have lost, through music, singing, photography and stories,” said Opera Omaha general director John Wehrle. “The performance itself is a journey, and it’s the journey of life that counts. This proclamation of hope will be uplifting and will leave the audience inspired.”

“Ultimately the message is: What are we going to do about this, and who is going to do it? It’s the community that’s going to make the difference and help each person get through it,” said Farhart.

This is why the public was invited to participate by submitting survivor and co-survivor stories and photos online at operaforthecure.org. The special website displays these inspirational tales and images through October 17. A few of the testimonies and snapshots will be variously projected on stage, exhibited in the Orpheum lobby and featured in concert promotional materials. What Angels in America did for AIDS, Sing for the Cure has done for cancer. Just as Angels used dramatic musical theater to express the searing emotions and experiences of AIDS, Sing for the Cure uses music and testimony as the prism for its cathartic look at cancer.

 

 

The concert program features classical and concert music by leading contemporary composers, including Joseph M. Martin and Michael Cox. The libretto speaks to the personal, family and communal impact of cancer, drawing on real-life stories in some cases. Professional and nonprofessional actors on stage will share various cancer stories. Dancers will help interpret the spoken and sung narrative.

Guest conductor Richard Buckley leads the Omaha Symphony, joined by the Opera Omaha Chorus and the Opera Omaha Valmont Voices in Residence, featuring: American baritone Kyle Albertson, tenor Neil Darling, mezzo soprano Jennifer Forte and soprano Alyssa Nance. Collaborating with Buckley are visiting artists Helena Binder, who directs, and Opera Omaha Chorus Master/Resident Music Director J. Gawf.

Dramatic lighting and an array of screens projecting video images will key music, words, emotions, and meanings. Musically, audiences can expect “a very accessible oratorio that speaks to the emotions of having cancer, dealing with it, how it affects all around you and the knowledge that many are there to support you in your personal journey,” said Buckley.

“The style of the music is quite popular and deals with ten different moments of a woman’s journey with breast cancer. But it is not all dark, because life isn’t. There is humor, compassion, farewells to loved ones. The music has full chorus numbers, solos both legit and jazzy.” Stage director Helena Binder worked hard to ensure the concert has a narrative flow, complete with peaks and valleys and a mix of poignancy and humor.

“I feel it’s my job to bring it to the audience in a way they can feel that range of emotions,” she said. The many expressive facets she has to play with remind her of working on operas. “It’s kind of the same thing where all these different artistic elements come together to tell a story to give an overall experience,” she said. “It’s really exciting to me because you have so many pieces and yet the idea is to weave it into a whole. It’s like a tapestry.”

She said the evening will conclude in a spirited way. “It has to be something that people walk away from with a feeling of urgency, of commitment, of hope.”

Performances are October 15th at 7:30 p.m. and October 17th at 2 p.m. For ticket information visit ticketomaha.com or call 345-0606.

 

 

Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Children’s Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico


It seeems as though every year or so now I get an assignment to write about a medical mission team from Omaha that travels beyond borders to deliver care. In this Journeys story for Metro Magazine I write about the trips led by Dr. James Hammel and his team to the peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California and the city of La Paz, where life saving operations are done on infants and toddlers.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine, including my story, at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

 

 

Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Childrens Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

The peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California is a tourist draw for its ocean-front beaches and vistas. But isolation from the Mexican mainland makes it hard for residents to access specialized medical care. Poor residents lack the means to travel, much less afford treatment. A lack of pediatric heart services results in many congenital defects going unevaluated and undiagnosed. Consequently, many children die before getting an opportunity to be treated.

To bridge that care gap Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr. James Hammel twice a year leads a medical mission trip to the southern city of La Paz in that Mexican state. He and his all Children’s Hospital & Medical Center team were there in November and they’re back again this April.

Before starting the La Paz trips four years ago, Hammel was a veteran of medical missions to Honduras and Nicaragua. His work in Mexico grew out of a collaborative with a Sioux Falls, S.D. health center that received children cancer patients from Big Sur through the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation based on the peninsula. Foundation founder Tom Walsh is from South Dakota. Children sent to Sioux Falls who presented heart problems then came to Omaha for treatment.

When a boy named Mario died before ever making it to a Chidlren’s operating room, Hammel resolved to provide care in Southern Baja in order to circumvent the delays that result in such needless tragedy.

 

“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.” – Dr. James Hammel

 

“It was obvious to me he’d been turned away again and again and again,” Hammel says. “His mother was very sweet and she had taken him repeatedly across to the mainland and sort of begged for surgery from one of the centers there. But they just couldn’t get it. That case firmly cemented my commitment to this charitable foundation and when the opportunity did arise to work down there that seemed like a lot better option than bringing people up.

“Bringing kids up is very expensive, cumbersome, difficult. It takes a long time and it’s only possible to do in very small numbers. I thought. Well, for the same amount of money we could treat a dozen children there by bringing our team down.”

Hammel leads some 20 medical professionals, most specializing in critical care, on each 10-day trip. They’ve instituted many firsts there.

“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.”

He brings intensive care doctors, children’s pediatric intensive care nurses, a perfusionist to run the heart-lung bypass pump, cardiac anesthesiologists, operating room nurses and a surgical assistant. Everyone volunteers their time. Their care is entirely free to families.

 

“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful. I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.” – Dr. Bridget Norton

 

It’s taken awhile to build trust with local leaders but a permanent program is now in the works.

“Little by little the administration of the hospital we’re working in and the government health ministry and the state government began to take an interest in the possibility of making an ongoing program. That’s when my goals took their last maturational step,” Hammel says. “We’ve been back every six months for a total of six missions and we’ve operated on 68 children – some with simple diseases but some with very complicated heart defects. Mostly they’ve done fine.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some children require multiple surgeries.

“My goal is to establish a new cardiac treatment program to be a permanent part of that state’s health care system. In all of Mexico there are about 11 pediatric cardiac surgery programs and eight are located in Mexico City itself, thus the distribution of this resource is really poor and access is really limited. There are probably 18,000 children born in Mexico with heart defects every year and probably only about 3,600 corrective operations and catheter procedures performed. So, nearly 80 percent of the children with heart defects likely die, It’s a really big unmet need in the country.”

His goal is to help the Mexicans “build a viable, self-sustaining program that goes on treating these children when we’re not there and even after we stop coming.” He adds, “We have recruited to the state two pediatric cardiologists, a pediatric intensive care doctor and the first cardiac surgeon in the state. We have trained a group of pediatric intensive care nurses in special techniques for cardiac intensive care nursing. We trained the operating room staff.”

Before it can be self-sustaining, he says a “critical mass of manpower” is needed. Progress to get there is being made.

“It’s a gradual thing. This last summer the program performed its first open heart operation without us being there. They have performed a larger number of non-open heart cardiac cases, simpler cases, so they’re beginning to get going.”

He expects the program to reach a major milestone in 2016.

“When we get the program fully accredited by the Mexican federal government the hospital system can begin to receive some reimbursement for each case they do. It amounts to about $6,000 or $7,000 per case, but we can do it for that. It’s going to take a little more investment for needed supplies before we get to that point.

“In the meantime, we go and we do a dozen cases twice a year and that’s wonderful. It’s a great thing for the children we treat and their families, but it’s not enough. I would estimate there are about 60 children born in this state of Southern Baja a year with critical heart defects who need an operation, so we’re not reaching all of them.”

 

“The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”  – Shannon Hoy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’s created a nonprofit, Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts, to coordinate the medical care and logistics of the trips. It partners with the Los Cabos foundation. Children’s may soon be formally involved.

“Our hospital administration has seen the positive effect this kind of work has on our staff as far as their resourcefulness, their creativity, their career satisfaction. It’s something that really brings us together

and that has real tangible benefits in terms of our ability to do our job with excellence. I think Children’s is coming to see this work as a two-way street with great benefit to the people there and to our patients and staff here.”

Dr. Bridget Norton, a Specialist in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine, has been on all but one La Paz mission. She says it’s a “team-building” experience for both her and her fellow professionals who go.

“We make relationships and connections and friendships with colleagues we wouldn’t necessarily make without that experience.”

Many things Children’s does in Omaha, such as blood conservation and comfort med administration, have come out of what the team’s learned to improvise with in resource-poor La Paz.

Norton says the trips put in perspective the gifts she and her mates have to give.

“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful.

“I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.”

Perfusionist Joe Deptula, who’s made multiple Central American mission trips with Hammel, says the work is about “being able to give back.”

Shannon Hoy, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), has made many mission trips herself. She sums up the La Paz mission as “a great experience,” adding, “The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”

The team can’t forget a patient named Oscar.

“Oscar came to us with a very serious congenital heart defect, which was previously operated on during a different trip,” Hammel says. “Due to his age and heart defects, his heart had sustained a lot of wear and tear and we were unsure how well he would do despite the repair.”

When the team left for home his vitals looked good. Then a fire in the unit forced a patient evacuation. His lines were cut and he expired off the meds. News of his death hit the team hard as he’d twice beat the odds only to lose his life anyway.

Most operations are scheduled in advance but families often show up unexpectedly with a sick child. The parents of a 6-month-old named Derek drove hours to reach La Paz, where the team found the baby so fragile they simply admitted him for observation without a single line or anything started lest the trauma prove too much. The boy’s surgery the next morning went well and today he’s totally repaired and healthy.

The life-and-death surgeries and the intense emotions take their toll.

“You are exhausted and not just physically,” Norton says. “It’s hard work and we work long hours. We do overnights in the hospital. But it’s also emotionally draining. You just have a lot of feelings and emotions you work through.”

Once back home, some decompression is necessary. Thoughts of La Paz, however, are never far from Children’s team members’ minds. Not only do patients and families leave an imprint, but so do staff.

“We’re like family,” Norton says of her team and the Mexican team they work alongside. Collaboration is vital to the program’s success. “They’ve been amazing and are on-board with the mission. We really couldn’t do anything we do without them – all the support services they provide, the hoops they jump through, taking care of the equipment we leave down there. Any blip that comes up, they handle it.”

Los Cabos foundation former executive director Greg Edwards now heads Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts with Dr. Hammel. He says building the program has inherently high stakes and complexities because it’s critical care. Since that care is largely delivered by Omaha specialists, much coordination and navigation is required. These specialists not only practice their healing arts in La Paz but impart expertise there. Locals also travel to Omaha for training.

“The support of Dr. Hammel’s team and friendships that exist at Children’s has been essential for this to happen,” Edwards says. “You cannot have a cardiac program without intensive care. Building a pediatric cardiac care program is no small task. It has meant creating relationships with Mexican officials. recruiting qualified staff, turning the surgeries into not only life-saving operations but a training theater for the local Mexican medical staff, creating a pipeline for medical supplies needed for the surgeries and intensive care from Omaha to Baja.

“It really is a huge undertaking.”

Abriendo Corazones accepts donations to support its efforts at strengthening hearts. Contact Dr. Hammel at 402-955-4360.

For more on the trips, visit http://www.loscaboschildren.org/donate/.

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