Children's Hospital Celebrates Historic Gift

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009; 1:56 PM

People in lab coats and scrubs watched through windows above the atrium at Children's National Medical Center and cheered as they heard hospital leaders announce one of the largest philanthropic donations ever made to a U.S. pediatric hospital: $150 million from the government of Abu Dhabi, a gift that the hospital hopes to use to dramatically change pediatric surgery.

"We'll make surgery less invasive, more precise and pain-free," Dr. Kurt Newman, told the crowd gathered in the atrium. "I love my job!"

The donation has the potential to transform Children's Hospital, enabling it to hire more than 100 surgeons, researchers and staff members over the next few years, hospital officials said. Its arrival amid a recession has created palpable excitement at the Northwest Washington hospital, which treats thousands of children and performs 15,000 surgeries each year.

"This is not just a gift, it's a catalyst to spark innovation worldwide," said Edwin K. Zechman Jr., president and chief executive of Children's, who said the money could revolutionize not just his hospital, but also the entire field of pediatric surgery. They are anticipating advances will come quickly, as the money accelerates research.

The money comes from the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates. The Persian Gulf country has given large sums to Johns Hopkins Medicine and other U.S. institutions. But the gift was arranged by Joseph E. Robert Jr., a prominent Washington philanthropist with deep ties to Children's and personal connections to wealthy members of the UAE's royal family.

Doctors at what will be called the Sheik Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation will collaborate across disciplines to improve surgery for children. That could mean advances such as using genetic research to personalize surgeries and pain management, bringing imaging technology directly into the operating room to guide procedures with greater precision, using nanoparticles to target tumors and, in some cases, eliminating the need for surgery altogether.

"Wow!" said Richard Redett, director of pediatric plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, marveling at the size of the donation and the targeting of one specialty. "This kind of gift almost never happens."

The gift, to be paid over five years, will dedicate $60 million to research and programs, $40 million to improving research facilities, $25 million for a surgical institute endowment and $25 million for other needs at the medical center. The hospital will add $100 million to $120 million of its money for doctors' salaries, new operating theaters and other expenses, bringing the amount committed to the project to more than $250 million.

The scope and ambition of the plan are the brainchild of Robert, 57, a major donor to Children's who is battling brain cancer. About a decade ago, Robert's son underwent a nearly 10-hour surgery at Children's to rebuild his chest wall. The complicated procedure, performed by Kurt Newman, was amazingly successful, Robert said. His son, now 29 and a student at American University, was strong enough to serve in the Marines.

Robert, who has made a fortune in real estate investment and asset management and has given away a fortune to local charities, donated $25 million to Children's and led a fundraising campaign for a new surgical center, which is named after him. (That was the second-largest gift to Children's from an individual; the largest was a cumulative $50 million from Stephen and Diana Goldberg.)

About four years ago, he invited Newman, Zechman and others to his home for breakfast and asked them how to turn the hospital into the premiere pediatric surgical center in the world.

"I said to Kurt specifically: 'Forget everything you've known and been taught and used in terms of the way an operating room is set up and people work together. Take a clean sheet of paper . . . think in the future perfect tense. What's it going to look like in 10 years or 30 years, and how do we speed up to get there faster?' "

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