Sept. 30, 2003 – A large number of residents "witnessed history," in the words of Amos W. Carty Jr., at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute on Tuesday morning under canopies outside Roy L. Schneider Hospital.
Carty, the hospital's chief operating officer and legal counsel, served as master of ceremonies for the two-hour event. In front of the dais stood a row of 10 shovels, pushed into the ground and decorated with ribbon bows in the signature violet color of the cancer facility.
Before the morning was over, no one doubted the amount of dedication and caring by those who have been involved in this effort from the start. Two speakers were emotionally overcome upon realizing that the day was finally here, and it was handkerchief time as they each continued to speak.
Following music performed by the Charlotte Amalie High School Symphonic Band, formal posting of the colors by Ivanna Eudora Kean High School's Junior ROTC, and invocation by the Rev. Troy Schuster De Chabert, Carty recognized platform guests and others, including Schneider Hospital staff and department heads and praised the parts each group played in coming to this day signaling the reality of a Virgin Islands cancer care facility.
The first to speak was Rodney E. Miller Sr., the hospital's chief executive officer. Carty said in introducing his boss that Miller immediately upon his arrival to assume the position was given the mandate of establishing world-class health care for Virgin Islanders.
Contributions and early planning
Miller was first to note the major donation of Henry and Charlotte Kimelman, V.I. residents for more than 50 years. The Kimelmans had donated $200,000 17 years ago in a start-up effort that didn't happen. But since then they've contributed another $650,000 and have pledged an additional $150,000, for a total gift of $1 million.
Miller also noted the successful fund-raising event that featured a performance by Roberta Flack and a Rotary donation of $100,000 for the facility's healing garden. He said the fund-raising goal is $2.5 million.
He additionally noted the support of Dr. Michael Potts, interim CEO at Juan F. Luis Hospital; Dr. Roy L. Schneider, who with the Kimelmans shared the original "Possible Dream"; the hospital district governing board members; and the Caribbean Cancer Collaborative Team.
Also receiving praise was Gerry Roy of Roy's Construction, who will work with the engineering firm of Stanley Beaman & Sears and the architectural firm, Jaredian Design Group.
Dr. Bert Petersen Jr., designated "Physician Champion" for his role as clinical medical adviser to the facility team, expressed appreciation to the 25th Legislature, particularly Senate President David Jones and Sens. Lorraine Berry, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, and Celestino White; former legislators Allie-Allison Petrus, Anne Golden and Alicia "Chucky" Hansen; the Partners for Health; Dr. Alfred Heath; and the media, particularly talk show hosts, who Petersen said always welcomed his calls.
Beverly Chongasing, district hospital board chair, noted that many of the people on hand Tuesday also had been there 20 years earlier for the St. Thomas hospital groundbreaking.
Carty recalled actions by the 23rd and 24th Legislatures that provided more funding.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said the Kimelmans' generosity to the cancer facility is "one shining star in a galaxy of community contributions" they have made.
Henry Kimelman explained the circumstances that resulted in their original gift: The 8-year-old son of an employee was diagnosed with leukemia and had to go to Puerto Rico for treatment. The Kimelmans saw the heartache and the economic and emotional burdens caused by the situation and determined to do something about it for Virgin Islanders. The audience applauded as he told them the son is now 25 years old, healthy, and the father of two young children, himself.
The medical need
Radiation therapy, Miller explained, is the third cornerstone needed for comprehensive cancer care that will result in total patient empowerment. That cornerstone, he pledged, will be firmly in place within two years.
Petersen shared some chilling medical facts. Cancer is the second leading cause of deaths in the Virgin Islands, and the percentage it claims has been steadily increasing. One-fifth of the territory's deaths are due to cancer. By 2007, one in 200 residents will be diagnosed with cancer.
Only 40 percent of St. Thomas and St. John cancer patients are "retained," he said, meaning they obtain care on-island, and just 5 percent of those on St Croix do so.
Do the math, Petersen said: The average total care cost of a cancer patient is $125,000, and that times 600 new patients a year is a lot of dollars that should be staying in the territory.
The Virgin Islands cancer care facility, he said, is "not fulfilling a dream but supplying an urgent need."
Another speaker, cancer survivor Julie Evert, also had statistics: 50 percent of men and 33 percent of women in the United States will develop cancer.
Evert graphically described her years since a mammogram result in 2000 put her into those statistics. She had two mastectomies, she commuted for six months of chemotherapy and then insisted on radiation treatment. Chemo was every 15 days, she said, but radiation is required every single day; hence commuting was not an option.
The worst aspect: leaving her 4-year-old son, who was angry when she left and angry when she returned. The only upside, she added wryly: Chemo patients often get upgraded to first class on flights.
Now, Evert said, she feels a shadow behind her for all of her life: Will it stay hidden, or will she see it again? "Live life like it is a terminal illness … live each day as though it is your last and appreciate everything," she said, urging everyone, not just cancer patients, to "get a life — a life in which you are not alone, a life with love, and remember that love is work."
She implored residents not to keep their cancers secret, not to fear testing, not to avoid knowing the truth.
Evert inadvertently played a role in determining the location of the center. When she met Miller and learned that a facility was to be built, she asked where it would be. "Out behind the hospital, where there's space," she quoted him as saying. She hesitated to respond, and he asked why. "The six hours you're required to stay for chemotherapy — it's going to get pretty boring looking out windows in the back," she answered. "Put it out front." And out front it's going to be.
She lauded the extensive glass walls of the proposed center, seeing them as symbolic that cancer is not to be hidden in the Virgin Islands.
Miller on behalf of the hospital presented a bouquet of red roses to Charlotte Kimelman, praising her for "always a smile, always supporting our cause."
Then Carty called the names of 10 key people to go to ground level, don hard hats and take up the 10 shovels to turn over earth, thus actually breaking the ground. And someone appeared with a violet paper-covered box, opened it, and released white doves that flew to the sky — symbolic perhaps of hope rising.
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