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Fitzgibbon Community Cancer Center Celebrates 10 Years

October 07, 2019

Some said it couldn’t be done.

Others said it would be hard.

But everyone agreed it was desperately needed.

They were talking about the $4.1 million goal to construct the Fitzgibbon Community Cancer Center, which officially opened on Oct. 1, 2009.

The capital campaign for the Cancer Center had kicked off three and a half years earlier, in April 2006. At the same time, Marshall leaders already were involved in a capital campaign to build a community event center and aviation museum, now known as the Martin Center and Nicholas-Beazley Museum. The generosity of the people of Marshall and surrounding communities allowed both projects to become realities.

“It was just the whole community of people coming together,” said Gayle Carter, former development director who led the Cancer Center capital campaign. “We saw lemonade stands and garage sales and kids coming to the office with bags full of coins.”

Cancer Center construction, which broke ground in March 2009, was funded not only by the grassroots efforts of walk-a-thons and bake sales, but also by generous donations from more than 1,160 individuals, organizations and businesses and hundreds of memorial donations in the names of 246 people. Their families had designated the Cancer Center capital campaign as their memorial of choice at the time of their loved one’s passing.

Marshall veterinarian Dr. Tom Blumhorst and wife Kathy worked together as part of the 15-member capital campaign Steering Committee and nine-member Pace Setter Division, whose job it was to solicit donors, along with a 30-member Major Gifts committee, as well as others.

“The campaign was set up to have several large donors and a few small donors,” said Blumhorst. “And the way it turned out, there were less large donors and lots and lots and lots of small donors, which indicated how strong the support was from the whole community.”

Carter, reflecting back on her time as development director, said the hospital board’s decision to take on the project was a difficult one.

“That was a hard decision for the board to say, ‘Let’s go for it,’ especially at a time when the community was working for the Martin Center. But Ron Ott was a visionary, he really was. He knew our people really needed care here. And the doctors – they knew we had a lot of cancer patients that were being sent to Columbia,” said Carter.

Ott, who served as Fitzgibbon Hospital CEO from 1987 until he retired in 2015, said he was personally approached many times by cancer patients or their families asking about the possibility of the hospital providing cancer care.

“What I remember is, for a few years, people would come up to me and say, ‘Can’t we build a cancer center?’ They would share their experiences about themselves or a family member and tell me why we needed a cancer center right here,” he said.

In 2003, Ott hired Carter, who said she worked for a year in human resources and other areas of the hospital to become familiar with the staff and the culture of Fitzgibbon. And in 2006 a consulting firm, the DuBois Group, which had earlier assisted with fundraising to build the Salt Fork YMCA, opened a campaign headquarters for Carter and campaign associate Mary Keller.

Jack Uhrig, M.D., was named physician co-chair for the campaign, along with senior physician Bedford Knipschild, M.D.

“I was honored to be asked to do that – and to serve alongside such a respected physician as Dr. Knipschild, who is the one who asked me to come to Marshall,” said Uhrig. “We, along with some other physicians in the community, actually asked about the possibility of a cancer center in Marshall, so we were out ahead of it. I knew it was the right thing to do. What I didn’t understand at the time was how difficult it was going to be to raise that much money. The people who knocked on doors and did the soliciting, they did the real work.”

Uhrig, who explained that he personally made a few presentations in outlying communities, shared the story of a 98-year-old patient who during the campaign handed him $100 to go toward the capital campaign.

“It touched everybody. And I still make several referrals over there a week,” said Uhrig, adding that his two brothers-in-law both were treated at the Community Cancer Center. One of them has passed away, and the other is currently being treated for a second time there.

Appealing across generations and across peer groups was one of the keys of the capital campaign’s success.

“We organized a fantastic group of people,” said Ott. “It really became a community-wide event. It’s heartwarming to look back and see how many people participated. It was just so inclusive. We had everybody - from the very youngest to the oldest – working on this. As I recall, we actually had over 2,000 people who donated everything from a nickel to $100,000 to make it possible.”

Along the road to raising $4.1 million there were a few “bumps.” Interest in the campaign waned at times, and committee members may have become discouraged.

“I think we were all a little naiive,” said Keller, who worked as office manager at the campaign headquarters. “But naivety makes you think you can do anything, and we did. To raise that kind of money in a town of 13,000 people….When another capital campaign was going on at the same time? But we did it. The community did it. It was a very unifying experience.”

Ott said key individuals in the community – especially the inspiration of Ann Van Meter Waldorf Stapleton – kept them going. Stapleton, one of the first supporters of a cancer center in Marshall, passed away in February 2007, two years before the center opened.

“I visited Ann in the ICU,” Ott recalled. “She took my hand and said, ‘Ron, you have to promise me we’re going to get this built.’ I said, ‘I promise.’ We hugged, and she died shortly thereafter. And we were able to open the cancer center months later, just as she asked.”

Without the availability of cancer treatment in Marshall, patients were faced with a 40- to 100-mile round-trip drive to the closest cancer treatment center. The travel distance and time on the road were a terrible burden for many patients and their families, said Carter.

Medical oncologist with Missouri Cancer Associates Mark Tungesvik, M.D., who has medically directed oncology care at the Fitzgibbon Community Cancer Center since 2009, agreed.

“There were a lot of folks around Marshall and the surrounding area that would not seek oncology care if they had to travel,” he said. “They’d just accept the disease.”

Dr. Tungesvik remembers the capital campaign and how some in the community questioned whether cancer care close to home would come to fruition.

“When Ron Ott was facilitating this center he was thinking of Missouri Cancer Associates, in part because of our reputation for providing quality care, and so people would feel comfortable seeing doctors they knew and trusted,” he said. “But at the same time, some people were watching this when it started and questioning if it was even viable. They were battling pre-conceived notions of providing care in a smaller community. But it has steadily grown.  I think a lot of people are being treated here now because they have care that they can trust.”

Both he and radiation oncologist Steven Westgate, M.D., said the smaller center in Marshall is capable of providing more personalized care, and the continued presence of Missouri Cancer Associates physicians made sense for the community here.

“It’s certainly easier for us to travel than all the patients to travel,” said Dr. Westgate. “This is a beautiful center and very well-staffed. From my viewpoint, we treat patients, not cancer; and it shows in the special care they get as patients here. Some think ‘smaller’ can’t be as good. But it’s the very same care they’d get elsewhere – even across the state in St. Louis or Kansas City.”

                In looking back over a decade ago, Ott said seeing the community unite in support of the cancer center is one of his most rewarding memories.

                “In my 40 years in healthcare, the Cancer Center was the most rewarding endeavor that I personally was ever involved with that’s affected our whole community and the surrounding area,” Ott said. “It was the single-most important project that the community ever got behind, so that the people of the community could get quality care right here at a time they need it most. It was rewarding to see the team on the capital campaign. It took every single person and the belief that we could make it happen.”

The Cancer Center will mark its tenth year of operation with an event at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 15.