Smiling at the memory of being asked to serve as chairman of the board of City of Hope, Jack Suzar confides, "They caught me in one of the weakest points of my life."
He had just spent two weeks in bed with a case of pneumonia. Whether despite or because of his weakened condition, Suzar said yes.
Suzar assumed his position this summer, taking the helm at a time of unprecedented growth and change for the 77-year-old institution. Founded as a haven for tuberculosis victims and launched with two tents in the San Gabriel Valley desert, City of Hope now boasts 110 acres and national acclaim. Within the past year, the institution has finalized plans to build a new research hospital, opened a West Los Angeles Cancer Center and inaugurated a state-of-the-art biomanufacturing facility intended to revolutionize the process of translating research into treatment.
Suzar's introduction to the City of Hope - not counting the potluck fundraisers he attended as a youth with his mother - came through accounting firm BDO Seidman, where he worked on accounts for City of Hope as well as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
His mentor there encouraged community service, and Suzar soon hooked up with Jewish Vocational Service, eventually serving as its president.
Suzar has since changed jobs - he's now a vice president at Bel Air Investment Advisors - but he still works for someone who encourages voluntary activism in a big way: Jewish Federation Chair Todd Morgan.
"I'm a big believer in giving back to the community. When people make meaningful contributions as Jack does, it has a profound impact on him and on the community," says Morgan.
Pulling into the campus past expansive lawns, trees, fountains and a rose garden, Suzar comments that City of Hope is "an incredible place in terms of its serenity... It captures the people that work here. They all possess an attitude and desire to reach outside themselves and help people."
As its name suggests, those affiliated with City of Hope demonstrate abounding optimism, and Suzar isn't the only one who liberally sprinkles his rhetoric with superlatives when describing the facility and its programs.
"We're changing the paradigm of how science is being done on the whole planet," matter-of-factly states Dr. Larry A. Couture, vice president for technology development and transfer.
He's referring to the Center for Biomedicine and Genetics, a 20,000-square-foot facility that enables City of Hopes researchers and other scientists to expedite the process of translating research into treatment.
Pharmaceutical companies, under pressure to generate product within three to five years, balk at investing the time needed to develop treatments using biotechnology. But at the Center, researchers can nurture their projects over several years.
They can also produce product and perform early phases of clinical trials through the facility. Once a therapy proves promising, drug companies then can take over the remaining, costly steps required to bring the treatment to market, sharing the patent and revenue with City of Hope.
"This era, the late '80s to now, will be looked at as the dawning of modern medicine," Couture predicts. He says that until the present, medical treatment predominantly relied upon chemicals to "try to kill everything that's bad in the patient without killing the patient." In contrast, biotechnology harnesses the body's own immune system to selectively seek out and kill only damaged cells.
"In 10 to 20 years, there will be treatments like we've never imagined," he promises.
Indeed, even as Couture spoke, his colleague Dr. Andrew Raubitschek was preparing samples of a substance he had created to submit to the FDA for approval. Taking around four years to develop, it's a genetically engineered antibody that attaches to colon and breast cancer tumors and can enable doctors to see tumors that would not be visible with other forms of detection.
"This is a state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging agent for colorectal cancer," says Raubitschek.
He is also exploring how the substance can be used for treatment and is currently conducting four clinical trials using a similar antibody coupled with a radioactive element that can administer a lethal dose of radiation to the tumor.
The enthusiasm of the scientists seems to be matched by that of the patients. "It's an incredible place," says Marc Fremed, who spent more than four months at City of Hope while undergoing a bone marrow transplant. "Other hospitals I've been in, I've had some good doctors and nurses, but it wasn't every single person who was so nice." From the orderlies who pushed his wheelchair to the X-ray technicians to the person at the front desk, says Fremed, everyone went out of his or her way to be kind.
It is this attitude that most impresses Suzar, who describes it as a "passion to be helpful."
He is particularly pleased that more patients will have access to City of Hope's special brand of care now that the San Gabriel Valley institution has opened a facility in West Los Angeles. Located in an office building at Wilshire Boulevard and Barry Avenue, the West Los Angeles Cancer Center offers treatment, screening and detection services, as well as educational and support resources. The facility's light, airy chemotherapy area looks out on a tree-lined outdoor patio.
"We wanted to provide the same tranquil environment that's found on campus," says Suzar of the new center. Despite the many positive changes occurring at City of Hope, the institution, like any hospital, faces trials. Suzar cites the ever-changing nature of health care and the challenge of fiscal stability as two of the most important. He aims to develop a strategic plan and financial endowment that will assure the institution's future.
As for making the decision to accept the role of chair back when he was still weak from pneumonia, clearly he has no regrets.
"I get more out of it than I put in," Suzar says.