Home The Washington Diplomat November 2009 Knocking Out Kids’ Pain

Knocking Out Kids’ Pain


Abu Dhabi’s $150 Million Gift May Transform Pediatric Surgery

Sheila Gregory’s daughter has been through four surgeries at the District’s Children’s National Medical Center. Her family knows what it is to see a child in pain and not be able to help.

“During the surgeries, one of her phrases was, ‘I’m hurting,’” recalled Gregory, a resident of Forestville, Md. “Both my husband and I could feel for her.”

Gregory’s daughter, Jessica, who turns 11 this month, was born four weeks early with spina bifida. She had immediate surgery to mend a hole in her spine, and three other surgeries for related issues since then. She’s a familiar face at Children’s.

If Abu Dhabi — one of the United Arab Emirates — realizes its vision, the government’s 0 million donation to Children’s Hospital will soon lead to the elimination of pain in pediatric surgery. It’s an ambitious goal matched by an almost unprecedented pledge to a U.S. pediatric hospital. The donation was announced in September, and Children’s will open its new surgical facility this January.

The Gregory family was on hand when the announcement was made. “I was just so glad to be there to hear [about the donation],” said Sheila Gregory. “And to hear not only how much, but what it was being used for.”

Precise, Personal and Painless The new Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s aims to focus on four key areas: pain medicine to alleviate and eliminate pain; immunology to use a child’s immune system to fight and cure disease without surgery; bioengineering to use science and technology to make treatments as precise as possible; and personalized medicine to tailor treatments to the individual child, based on genetic makeup.

The money will go mainly toward research and treatment. “That’s one of the beauties [of this donation],” said Dr. Kurt Newman, executive director at the Center for Surgical Care at Children’s. “Usually, gifts of this magnitude are for buildings, but this generous contribution is for people and programs.”

So what’s going to change about pediatric surgeries at Children’s? “In some cases, it might be the latest in robotic technology to make an operation less invasive,” Newman explained. “Or it might be using the new dimensions in imaging and bring them right into the operating room so they’re operating with an MRI as they’re doing it. Or it may be using the new knowledge about genetics and the human genome to understand why it works on some and not on others.”

All new methods and treatments will have one thing in common: The overarching goal is to minimize, and eventually eliminate, pain from the surgical spectrum. It’s a lofty objective, but one that would completely transform pediatric surgery.

“In children, we can’t even measure pain,” Newman said. “We don’t know when children are hurting and what the intensity of pain is…. One of our first goals is to develop a machine that will measure pain, that will unlock a lot of the mystery of pain and make us able to develop new drugs and new treatments [to stop pain].”

Children’s Hospital currently performs about 15,000 surgeries annually. With the new surgical center, that number will increase, as the center hires more than 100 surgeons, researchers and staff members over the next few years. The hospital plans to pitch in another 0 million to 0 million to the donated amount, expanding the projected influx to 0 million.

The Abu Dhabi portion, to be donated over the next five years, will allot million to research and programs, million to improving research facilities, million for the institute’s endowment, and million to other needs.

Philanthropic Connections The quest to create this new surgical center came about directly as a result of one man’s connections. The leaders of Abu Dhabi were approached by Joseph E. Robert Jr., a prominent D.C. philanthropist with significant personal ties to Children’s. About 10 years ago, Robert’s son underwent a 10-hour surgery to rebuild his chest wall. Dr. Newman performed the highly successful surgery, and Robert’s son went on to serve as a Marine and is now an American University student.

“He was released a week later, but it was traumatic not just for him, but also for his mother and me,” said Robert. “The institute is going to dramatically reduce the trauma that children and their parents are going to have to experience. It’s going to change all that fear and anxiety and improve children’s lives before, during and after surgery.”

After his son’s harrowing scrape with fate, the Washington-based real estate investment and asset management tycoon donated million to Children’s and spearheaded a fundraising campaign (Fight for Children) to build a new surgical center, which is named after him. Robert, who is now battling brain cancer, is credited with securing the Abu Dhabi donation to Children’s Hospital.

Robert met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan about five years ago on a business trip to Abu Dhabi. The two became friends, and in recent years, Robert told the prince about his ideas to further develop Children’s. According to Robert, the prince was immediately drawn to the project, primarily because the money could make almost instant strides in pediatric surgery.

“We know illness and disease know no boundaries or borders,” said Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, at the press conference. “Medical advances require cooperation, partnership, resources and determination. This new institute will bring together the best minds in the field of pediatric surgery, pain management and medical research, all with a singular focus to initiate breakthroughs and find solutions.”

Children’s Hospital and the Abu Dhabi government are also discussing a partnership with Al Qudra Holding to create and operate a pediatric hospital in Abu Dhabi. “We are currently in the design phase of a comprehensive pediatric facility; however, the plans are still being finalized,” said Newman.

The Abu Dhabi leader made the gift in honor of his father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates and its president from 1971 until his death in 2004. In addition to the new surgical center, Children’s will also name its primary campus in downtown D.C. the Sheikh Zayed Campus for Advanced Pediatric Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center.

Shot of a Lifetime Officials at Children’s are thrilled at what all this means for the hospital and its patients. “This will give us the opportunity to transform the experience families and children have when having surgery,” said Newman. “With these types of resources and the freedom to do research and take it to the patients and families, we are really going to be able to make a lot of change very quickly. We want to leapfrog ahead and go after this dream of making surgery more precise and pain free.”

“What’s going to happen at this institute in surgery could be replicated in all the medical disciplines,” added Richard D. Snowdon, chairman of Children’s Board of Directors. “This institute has the potential to fundamentally change pediatric medicine throughout the world.”

Newman, who has been a surgeon for 25 years, was on the original planning team tasked by Robert to brainstorm on ways to design the ideal surgical center for children. “You don’t get these shots very often in life,” Newman said, “and to see it come true, well, my heart almost jumped out of its skin. I wasn’t able to sleep that night — it has been the highest high you can imagine.”

But to parents like Sheila Gregory, this kind of good fortune translates simply to good things for her child. Gregory thinks the world of her daughter’s doctors. When Jessica was 3, doctors told her mother that the girl’s leg braces would only take her so far. Gregory was told she needed physical therapy through martial arts to give her balance and confidence.

“Jessica couldn’t skip,” remembered Gregory. “She continued to try, and through the discipline of martial arts, eventually started to skip. And when she did, I remember we all broke down in tears and cried.”

Jessica’s doctors at Children’s didn’t want to automatically operate, Gregory said. Instead, they suggested martial arts, “which is what I love about the hospital,” she said. “They will treat your child as if it’s their own child. They will do anything to give your children an independent and normal life.”

And now, with this goal of dramatically decreasing and even possibly eliminating pain, Gregory believes the pediatric surgical experience could be revolutionized. Though no one wants to have surgery, she said it will be a relief to know the process will become easier.

“You’re already concerned about the reason for the surgery,” said Gregory. “If you could take away the pain … that just takes one big burden off the family.”

About the Author

Rima Assaker is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.