Bombeck: Gift Brightens Future for Kidney Patients
The need for a full-fledged children's hospital took on a particularly human face for Bill Bombeck during a tour of the original Phoenix Children's Hospital, located at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. Walking through the patient pods, he glanced into a room and saw a mother lying in bed, holding her little girl, who was on dialysis.
Bombeck says he was immediately struck by the warm combination of intimacy and informality.
He and his family have decided to do their own part to help make the new Phoenix Children's Hospital a reality by donating $831,000 to underwrite a pediatric hemodialysis unit at the new facility. The unit, part of the Kids Kidney Center, is now open at Phoenix Children's.
"This is an absolutely wonderful gift," says Dr. Robert Haws, head of the nephrology (kidney-related medicine) unit at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "They've given the kids the greatest thing they could ever give them."
The decision to make the donation was of particular significance for the Bombecks. Bill's first wife, Erma, the famous author and humorist, died in 1996 of complications following a kidney transplant. Carol, his second wife, lost two sons to kidney disease. That combined history gave the Bombeck family a keen sense of how critical a child-friendly nephrology unit can be.
"A lot of small children need dialysis," Bombeck says, but hospitals "can be depressing, and for small children, a really scary situation. You want to give them the most benign situation possible." Space constraints at the existing Phoenix Children's Hospital location has in some ways limited those efforts. But that will change at the new 20th Street and Thomas campus.
"We've seen the plans," Bombeck says, "and it's going to be a much better situation for children who need dialysis. After we met with Dr. Haws, Dr. Mark Joseph (another pediatric nephrology specialist), and Child Life Specialist Jenny Rogers, we felt we had definitely made the right decision."
Thanks to the Bombecks' gift, Haws says, every kidney patient at Phoenix Children's will be able to receive dialysis in the hospital, under careful medical supervision - "a happy alternative to the many clinics that offer dialysis under the watchcare of a technician or office staffer." He's especially pleased that the new nephrology unit will be "the only dialysis center in Arizona where only nurses will be taking care of the kids," with the full resources of a hospital near at hand. Plus, he says, there will be a ratio of one nurse to every two patients, "which is fantastic."
The expanded space at the new facility, Haws adds, will enable parents to stay with their children during the treatment, in a child-and-family-oriented environment.
"It's going to be colorful, it's going to be fun," he says. "They're not going to be bored while they sit there. They're going to be stimulated."
"Everything in this new center is going to be geared toward making dialysis as pain-free and minimal-anxiety-producing an experience as possible," Haws says. "This is going to be a state-of-the-art center. You couldn't get better dialysis, anywhere."
For Bombeck, there is particular excitement in being able to help fund a pediatric kidney center at a time when so many promising developments are on the horizon for kidney patients.
"There has been remarkable progress in the treatment of kidney disease," he says. "The transplant surgery is not nearly as
difficult. We have better anti-rejection drugs than we had a few years ago."
Haws affirms these breakthroughs. The surgical process has greatly improved, he says, so that even for living donors, "the healing time is one-fourth what it used to be."
"There are changes going on all the time," says Bombeck. "Financially, we'd be better off if we could do more transplants. It costs a lot less to transplant than to maintain a patient on dialysis, but I think we could save so many more lives if we had more donors."
In fact, he says, the greatest obstacle to helping children with kidney problems is not medical technology, but the fact that donors are so hard to find.
"The need has outpaced the availability," he says. Bombeck points out that, while nearly 51,000 people were on the waiting list for a new kidney last year, only 13,372 people donated kidneys. That's a higher number of donors than before, but "the increase in the numbers of transplants is nothing like what we need."
Both of Bombeck's wives have helped underscore the importance of organ donations (Carol was director of the Arizona Kidney Foundation and founded the Women's Board, and Erma served on the Foundation Board and organized its major fund-raising event, The Author's Luncheon). And yet, he says, "people aren't really aware of the need -- at least, until someone close to them gets on the transplant list. Then it becomes a real life-and-death matter."
To galvanize greater support throughout the community for organ donations, Bombeck heads up the Erma Bombeck Organ Donor Awareness Project in conjunction with the Arizona Kidney Foundation.
"We try to promote the idea that no one should die and not make provision for their organs to be available for transplant to others," he says. "Potential donors must tell their family members and friends of their desire to be an organ donor. Indicating your wishes in a will or on your driver's license may not be effective, unless you have relayed your commitment to family and friends, too." (For more information on being an organ donor, contact the Project at 1-888-840-ERMA.)
"Both Bill and Carol are well known throughout this community for their remarkable generosity," says Toni Neary Harper, senior director of philanthropy at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "Their love for children, and especially their commitment to better care for kidney patients, has culminated in this tremendous contribution. It's a gift that is going to impact thousands of children all over Arizona, and it's a wonderful leadership gift for the new hospital."
"We hope others will step up to support the hospital," says Bombeck. "We know that it's going to be successful," he says. "We're very pleased to be a part of it."