Editorial: Hope in Hampton and One Man's Vision, Passion and Legacy

By: (October 23, 2010)

The event was very high tech — and what's more high tech than a beam of subatomic particles? But the real story at Thursday's grand opening of Hampton University's new Proton Therapy Institute wasn't about technology but about humanity. Amid all the science, there was a big measure of emotion.

The governor was the keynote speaker. The president of Hampton University was the master of ceremonies. The speakers included men of medicine and science with impressive credentials. But Jacob was the scene-stealer.

Jacob wasn't on the program, and he didn't speak. He couldn't even reach the top of the podium. But as his mother, Susan Ralston, spoke, the blond kindergartener climbed the steps to the stage, looked out at the audience and tried out a chair near the dignitaries. That wouldn't seem unusual for a five-year old, if you hadn't just heard his mother say that at the age of two, he was struck by a rare cancer and paralyzed from the waist down.

But there he was, making it clear that the day wasn't really about gantries and cyclotrons but about the men and women and children to whom it offers hope.

Proton therapy is just one of the tools in the fight against cancer, but for people with solid and localized tumors, it can be a powerful tool. And a gentle one: The precisely focused beam attacks the tumor but spares the healthy tissue around it. That means that treatment is less debilitating.

The center expects to treat about 2,000 patients a year when it's fully operational. That is a lot of lives improved, extended, even saved. A lot of Jacobs who have their parents and a lot of parents who have their Jacobs.

Part of the reason why HU President William Harvey and this historically black university wanted to build the center is that African American men are especially likely to have prostate cancer. But they aren't the only group the institute will treat. Proton therapy is also used for cancers of the head, neck, spine, lung and breast. It's beneficial for children, as Jacob's mother explained, because their developing bodies are especially vulnerable to damage when radiation strays beyond the boundaries of a tumor.

There were a lot of numbers at Thursday's ceremony. The $225 million that Hampton University had to raise in order to get to this day. The millions of dollars in federal contributions that Rep. Bobby Scott helped secure. The 156 good jobs the center is bringing to the area. The millions of dollars it will pour into the local economy, as patients stay for several weeks of treatment, lodging in hotels, eating in restaurants and attracting visitors who come to spend time with them, and as the center bills insurance companies for the treatments provided.

But the number that mattered most was one.

One patient — their own — is what the families whose lives will be touched by the center care about.

One man made it happen. The Proton Therapy Institute is the dream, the vision, the passion and the legacy of Bill Harvey. He was not daunted by the fact that most of the nation's handful of proton centers are associated with major hospitals and medical schools, including Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. He raised the money, finessed the borrowing, and was unbowed by the inexplicable refusal of state legislators to recognize what a boon this facility is for Virginia and Virginians and to step up with meaningful support (it's not too late).

Harvey talks about what it means to be able to relieve suffering. He speaks of developing the center as the Lord's work. Undoubtedly many of the people it treats, and the people who love them, will feel the same way.

Copyright © 2010, Newport News, Va., Daily Press

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