Jan. 17, 2006 – Hundreds of smiling Virgin Islanders came together Tuesday morning to share a moment of historic pride: the dedication of the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute.
Under a bright sun and clear blue sky, a beaming Rodney S. Miller Sr., Schneider Regional Medical Center CEO, said, "A new day has dawned for the people of the Virgin Islands," adding that V.I. residents would now have access to "world-class health care equal to anywhere else in America."
Surrounded by a stage filled with dignitaries – including former Gov. and Mrs. Roy Schneider, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, Lt.Gov. Vargrave Richards, Senate President Lorraine Berry, Delegate Donna M. Christensen, former Delegate Ron de Lugo – Miller said he hopes the institute will be the mecca for cancer treatment in the Caribbean.
However, without doubt, the star of the day was the institute's namesake, Charlotte Kimelman.
And she was introduced in style. One of today's most memorable political figures, George McGovern — former U.S. senator, presidential candidate and longtime friend of the Kimelmans — spoke fondly of his old friend. With a brief glance at the sparkling new structure next door, he said, "Charlotte is like this building. Beautiful on the outside and well-endowed inside. She has a warm heart, clear mind and absolute integrity."
The Kimelmans, V.I. residents for more than 50 years, have given a total of $1 million toward the institute over almost two decades.
Adorned in a pastel yellow summer suit, Kimelman said simply, "This is the most thrilling day of my life, the completion of a dream come true."
"It is 19 years since we made the first commitment from Partners for Health to construct a comprehensive, cancer detection and treatment center." She continued, "I want to thank Rodney Miller and all the many people of these islands, so that people will not have to leave home for world-class cancer care. It is an amazing institute which bears my name."
After Charlotte Kimelman's brief statement, Henry Kimelman, who said he just celebrated his 85th birthday, took up the reins. "I am here today as Mr. Charlotte Kimelman," he said, "It's a great thrill for us to be here with eight members of our family."
After some jocular greetings and thanks to Miller, Henry Kimelman had a tale to tell.
"The institute wouldn't be a reality today if it were not for Roy Schneider. Years ago my houseman's eight-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. I consulted with Roy. The boy had to go off island for further treatment. That was in 1980, and two years and $50,000 later he was cancer free. Today he is free of cancer and has two kids.
"Roy said to me then, 'We need a cancer facility, and you know it.' He thought the building would cost $900,000. We agreed to do it," Kimelman said.
Kimelman also had news. "Rodney has told me he needs a $1 million piece of equipment for the facility. I told him, if the V.I. government puts in one third, and the community raises another third, my family will donate the other third."
The ceremony was highlighted by the unveiling of bronze busts of Charlotte Kimelman and Schneider by Amos Carty, who was a stand-in master of ceremonies. (Radio personality and Schneider board member Sam Topp was scheduled to do the honors, but a death in the family took him off island.)
Guest speaker Dr. Harold P. Freeman, senior advisor to the director of the National Cancer Institute, said, "I have never seen a more modern facility in the United States. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Martin Luther King's birthday was yesterday. Near the end of his life, he said one of the most shocking and inhumane things he had seen was [the lack of] health care for everybody."
Freeman, who was director of surgery for 25 years at New York's Harlem Hospital, spoke of the poverty affecting African-Americans particularly, a problem he had worked on his entire career. He spoke of the Patient Navigation Program, which he pioneered to guide "poor people through the barriers they face trying to get treatment. "
Freeman said there is legislation, started under President Nixon, which has appropriated $5 billion in cancer funding. "Some of that should come here, and I'll see what I can do to help," he said, to a round of applause.
June Adams, chair of the Schneider St. Thomas-St. John governing board, said, "When God is in our midst, good things happen. I really and truly give credit to Roy Schneider and to Charlotte. The seed was planted by these people."
Adams paused. "I'm not going to start crying like I did three years ago [at the groundbreaking]," she said. "I'm stronger today. I have lost so many – two sisters, two brothers, my mother. Rest assured today that you don't have to go to the airport to be treated. You can be comforted here with your families."
Though Adams kept her vow, some sniffles mingled with the smiles in the audience.
Miller had his hands full trying to thank everyone who had contributed to the institute. "When I first started as CEO in 2002," he said, "there was no business plan; no architectural drawings; no site plan. With the help of Amos Carty, my right-hand man, I reached out to a nationally recognized organization, Oncology Solutions, to help us establish the clinical infrastructure, and we selected Dr. Bert Petersen for our 'physician-champion.'" (Petersen was unable to attend the ceremony.)
He then thanked the many, many fund-raisers, the hospital staff, major contributors, but most of all, he thanked the community for its caring and support. "Look around you, Virgin Islanders, this is your facility. It belongs to you."
Miller also thanked the 23rd and 25th Legislatures for allocating approximately $5.9 million from the territory's share of the national tobacco fund proceeds and another $5 million from a bond indenture.
"I thank the AARP for pushing to keep those funds for health care," he said. Also, Miller thanked former Sen. Allie-Alliston Petrus, who was primary sponsor of legislation to keep 100 percent of the funds for health care, and not for the Union Arbitration Fund.
Additionally, Miller noted a unique feature of the new facility, in mentioning its attractiveness to a potential tourist market, as well as to the rest of the Caribbean. He asked, "Where else can you get cancer treatment while looking out at cruise ships in a beautiful harbor?"
Before the ceremony, Petrus said, "It's beyond words to see it come to fruition. Looking back, you have to admire the current hospital's persistence."
Dotting the crowd were brilliant red hats of the Caribbean Red Bonnets, the local branch of the Red Hat Society. The group, a la the "Calendar Girls" movie, made a calendar of their own in 2004. Judy Grybowski said Tuesday that they raised $20,000, all of which went to the cancer institute.
The gathering was filled with community leaders, senators past and present, cabinet members, cancer survivors, judges, educators, and in the back, some mothers tending babies in strollers.
La Verne Ragster, University of the Virgin Islands president, smiling broadly, said, "It is so exciting that our community has moved forward to support all of this."
Perhaps Police Commissioner Elton Lewis summed it up best: "All I can say is it's a wonderful thing."
The cancer center will be open to the public for tours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday. Cancer institute staff will be on hand to answer questions, and cancer education materials will be available.
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