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Melinda French Gates - Children’s Hospital Foundation

September 4, 2003
Remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair

Good morning.  It’s a pleasure to have all of you here at the foundation. I have to say for me it’s a little bit unusual because I come to this building quite often during the week, but mostly I’m in my office. And when I am speaking here, it’s internal to the foundation. So it’s nice for me to look out and see a sea of faces, many of you whom I know in Seattle, the community, but most importantly, from the commitment that you make to Children’s. It’s neat seeing all of you gathered in this room. 

I wanted to start this morning by recognizing so much of the work that you all are already doing in this phase of the silent campaign, really to recognize the people who are serving on so many different capacities for Children’s. Some of you are on the foundation board, I know. Some of you are on the main board. Some are on the guild. But the leadership council that many of you have signed up for really is an important thing to Children’s and so I thank you for giving that time to Children’s and I am especially pleased and honored to be the chairman of this campaign going forward for Children’s. That, as we know, is so important.

So much of what we are doing here at the foundation and so much of what Children’s is doing is starting to overlap. And I think there are a lot of inter-connections that make a lot of sense, and will continue to make sense over the years, particularly with University of Washington, Fred Hutch [Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center] and some of the other things that are going to go on in this sort of biology campus in the south end of Lake Union.

I want to talk for a minute about how we came to work on Children’s issues here inside of this building, inside the foundation. If any of you have heard Bill or myself, or someone else from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speak about what we are passionate about, you often hear us speak about global health inequities. More than half of the money that we give is to address inequities in global health, around 30 percent to improve high school education, provide scholarships, and connect U.S. libraries to the Internet—and then almost 15 percent of the foundation’s resources we dedicate here in the Northwest, to our region.

So often though, Bill and I talk about global health inequities. You will hear us particularly talk about AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria because those are three plagues that we are trying to tackle on a global basis—and they’re enormous plagues. Bill’s joke these days is that when people see him coming at cocktail parties they run because they know he’s going to talk about tuberculosis—a topic everybody is so interested in. But when we think back to when we first got started here, even before we got moved into this building, the first and largest grant we gave was for childhood immunizations.

And Bill and I had wondered, “How could we help children across the globe?” And when we started to think about health it really was a surprise to us, the inequities that exist between the developed world and the undeveloped world. In fact, a lot of the diseases that we think of as taken care of in the United States have not begun to be taken care of in the rest of the world.  We are so fortunate in the United States, the United Kingdom and the developed world to have great medical research. The bulk of that medical research happens here in the United States because of NIH. But you would be amazed, the more you study about this, to learn how much of that great research stays inside the developed world, and even though we have life-saving vaccines, there is an enormous gap. Those vaccines don’t get to children around the world.

So many of us who are parents in the room go to our pediatricians; and we take for granted the vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella. But things you don’t even think about getting in this country are real scourges in the developing world.  And so that’s where we started with the foundation and from there we branched out into doing more work in AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. But I think it’s important for you all to realize that at the core of what we do are children’s issues.  And that’s why it was a natural for me when Doug asked whether I would chair this campaign. It was a very natural thing for me to do.

I want to talk a little bit about how I personally became involved with Children’s Hospital here in the Northwest, because I think all of us sitting in these seats have our own personal story about that.

I think many of you in the room know my late mother-in-law, Mary Gates, who passed away in 1994. In fact there are some faces in this room who I know were responsible for recruiting her to work on Children’s. And as well, I see others of you in the room that she then in turn recruited to be involved with Children’s. And for those of you that knew Mary, she was very passionate about Children’s Hospital and she was tenacious. So when she decided she was going to do something or get somebody involved, my gosh, she was going to get it done.

I was dating Bill and she had her sights set on me, I think as a young Microsoft executive, to get involved in Children’s. And I did. But I have to say that when I first got involved with Children’s it was very much an intellectual exercise for me.  I thought it was a great hospital that we had in the region doing great things. But it wasn’t until I had my own first child, Jennifer, in 1996, that I really became passionate about Children’s and what Children’s does.

I would say that that is true also for Bill and me about the foundation. I think we originally came to this as a bit of an intellectual exercise about what we would do with the vast resources that had come from Microsoft. And once we had our own children we became very engaged in the issues and started to realize that what we give our own children here at home, and what you give your children, is something that we want to make sure all children in the Northwest have access to—and really all children across the globe have access to.

I can speak a little bit about patient care but I’m not going to say much about that this morning because I think you all know about the great patient care in the Northwest that Children’s gives to so many families, whether that’s anti-natal care, whether that is oncology care, whether that’s going there in the middle of the night with your child (and you’re trembling running up to that door)—which I have done—to bring your child to that emergency room. I think all of us can’t be more thankful that there’s Children’s Hospital here in Seattle and in the Northwest.

I want to spend a little bit more time on the international focus of Children’s Hospital and what excites me about that. Two years ago in May of 2001, as you heard, I spoke at the Children’s Circle of Care Five-Year Leadership Conference.  Many of you were there. What really struck me at that conference was the inter-connectedness between the foundation and what was going on at Children’s. Would you believe that the person who followed me on the podium was a doctor from the East Coast, a Children’s Hospital doctor who spoke about the ground-breaking research that he was doing on meningitis A for children?  Now for those of you that know anything about meningitis, it’s a terrible disease that affects, if you get it, affects the fluid of your spinal column and of your brain. It’s very debilitating and can cause death.  And we don’t see very much meningitis A in the United States anymore. But this doctor had seen enough of it. And he decided to do key research and he got funding to do so through Children’s Hospital.

Well, on the other side of that equation is the foundation—the people in this building. We don’t do basic medical research, but we support it. And we really try and give the developing world access to the great research that goes on in the United States. Why?

Let me tell you what happens in the developing world: In sub-Saharan Africa, every three to five years, there’s outbreak of meningitis A. Some 250 million people, age 6 months to 30 years, are currently at risk. A vaccine exists, but it does not protect infants. And it only protects adults for three to five years. So we're supporting the development of a better vaccine that can provide longer, stronger protection to both adults and young children.

Now you can bet that we’re following the work of this doctor at Children’s Hospital to find out what is he discovering about children and meningitis A to then think about how we would get a vaccine like that to the children of the developing world. So I just wanted to show you a little bit about the inner-connectedness of what goes on: the great research at Children’s Hospital and how that focus not only touches the United States, it really touches the global environment.

The other thing I want to talk about is the international focus of Children’s here, our Children’s Hospital in Seattle. And I want to do that by highlighting a story, a very personal story for me. My sister and her husband and their children lived as expatriates outside the United States for six years in various countries.

While living in Argentina, they became very close friends with the Aguilleras family. And this family, the Aguilleras, had a son, Ignacio, who was battling cancer. It was a rare form of cancer and Ignacio had gotten all the care he could possibly get in Argentina. He had several recurrences of this cancer, and the doctors eventually said to this family, “Your son really needs a bone marrow transplant and the place to do that is Children’s Hospital in Seattle.”

And the more they researched it, the more they learned. This family was lucky enough to have the resources to bring their child to Children’s Hospital here in Seattle. Ignacio, who was ill with cancer, came with his two parents, two siblings, and an uncle to help care for the children.

I was able to go to the hospital and visit them one day, three years ago. The family had learned about two days before, that in fact Ignacio could not be brought up to the level that he needed to in fact receive the bone marrow transplant that he had come to receive. In fact, the family knew at that point that they were going to lose their son.

And so I was able to visit them at the hospital and the grace that that family had and the love that surrounded them at Children’s was really something to behold.  Even in the midst of their pain one of the things that they described me was the incredible care and hope and love that the people at Children’s had given to them. I left Children’s that morning and literally sat in the parking garage and wept in my car to think about this family who knew they were going to lose their son. I thought how lucky we are to have Children’s here, and how lucky I was as a mom, not to have my child be the one lying in that bed. So that’s the sad part of the story.

The joyful part of this story is quite amazing. The family went back to Argentina and after much grief during the first year, they started to think about how they might give back. And they kept coming back to the fact that what they learned and received at Children’s was something they wanted to give back to the Argentine families around them. The mother decided to go back to school and become a psychologist to offer grief counseling for young children. She is now studying in that field.

There is no Children’s Hospital in Argentina, so the family decided to dedicate three hours a week, as a family, to the Ronald McDonald House in Argentina and to build a room there in honor of their brother and son, Ignacio. The family serves warm, healthy meals to the families who come to Ronald McDonald. You see, when they were in the U.S. Children’s Hospital connected them with Ronald McDonald House and a translator. And through the Ronald McDonald House, they found a way to give back in Argentina.  So they did.

Last year the family last year moved to Santiago, Chile and you know what they did? They opened the very first Ronald McDonald House in Santiago, Chile in honor of Ignacio. I have to say that today, there is an 11-year-old child in Children’s Hospital who has come from Argentina—sponsored by the Aguilleras family. This child has successfully received a bone marrow transplant and is recovering here in Seattle—in Children’s Hospital.

I want to share that story with you because I think it gives you a sense of the effects that Children’s Hospital has on the world. I would like to think of it as these concentric rings. As you think about the effect of that one family and what they brought back to Argentine and Chile, it’s really quite unbelievable. I think a lot of what we do here at the foundation and how we overlap with Children’s on research is also like those concentric rings going out over a pond. I think that’s a neat concept for us to think about.

Children’s really is a gem in the Northwest. And I think all of us in this room are dedicated to making sure that we preserve it, and we protect it, and we help Children’s fulfill its mission. That’s what we’re here to do.

When I think back a little bit on my late mother-in-law, Mary Gates, and I think about what she would be the most proud of, there are three things that come to mind. First, I wish she was here to see the great father that her son has become.  I think that she would be quite proud of that. I think she’d be also quite proud to stand in this building and see what a philanthropist her son and family has become—because that was something that she dreamt of for her family and for her son. And finally, I think she would have a big, wide smile on her face thinking about all of you sitting here this morning in honor of Children’s. She was involved with the hospital for almost 20 years and when we all think about Children’s 100-year mission and how we are trying to fulfill it, she would just love to know that all of you are part of that, and that she got to play some small role in it, and now we, as a family, get to continue in that role.

So I want to thank you for your dedication and your commitment to Children’s and all that you are doing now and in the upcoming years. It’s great to have you here.

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