Abu Dhabi's $150m gift to children

The government donates US$150 million to the Children's National Medical Center in Washington.

Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba accepts gifts from children at a press conference at Children's National Medical Center, September 16, 2009, in Washington.
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WASHINGTON // The government of Abu Dhabi yesterday announced a donation to a children's hospital here, marking one of the largest contributions ever to paediatric medical research. The gift of US$150 million (Dh551m) to the Children's National Medical Center will fund the establishment of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, named after Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's founder and former president. The medical centre's metropolitan Washington campus will also carry Sheikh Zayed's name.

The project will include construction of a state-of-the-art operating room and more than 929 square metres of laboratories and conference rooms. The hospital also plans to hire more than 100 surgeons and researchers to explore more precise and less painful surgical procedures for children, endeavours that hospital officials believe will transform paediatric care over the next decade. "This landmark gift is a remarkable investment in knowledge and ideas," said Edwin Zechman Jr, the hospital's president and chief executive. "It's not just a gift, it's a catalyst that will spark innovation to benefit children worldwide."

The donation was formally announced yesterday at an inaugural event attended by Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the United States, Zaid al Siksek, the chief executive of the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, and Joseph Robert Jr, a prominent philanthropist and property mogul whose close relationship to the hospital and the Abu Dhabi royal family facilitated the donation. Adrian Fenty, the mayor of the District of Columbia, also was in attendance.

"We know illness and disease know no boundaries or borders," Mr al Otaiba said, citing the hundreds of Emirati children who have been treated at the hospital. About one third of the hospital's international referrals, which include patients from more than 50 countries, have come from the UAE, a hospital spokeswoman said. Among the new institute's ambitious research goals is to invent a device that can objectively measure pain in babies and small children, something for which no current technology exists, according to Kurt Newman, the paediatric hospital's surgeon-in-chief.

"Our goal is for children not to have to experience pain before, during and after surgery," he said. "We believe this is achievable over the next five to 10 years." The new institute will also spearhead efforts to personalise medical treatment for individual patients based on their genetic make-up and lead new research into how to harness a child's immune system to fight illness and cure disease.

This donation "will allow us to really break boundaries in science, in medical care and really advance paediatric medicine", Dr Newman said. Efforts to secure funding from Abu Dhabi, which has financial ties to another area hospital, Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, have been in the works for the past year and were borne out of a friendship between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Mr Robert, the head of a global real estate investment firm based in Virginia.

Nearly a decade ago, Mr Robert donated $25m to Children's, where his son, Joe III, underwent a nearly 10-hour surgery to rebuild his chest wall. At the time, the gift was the largest philanthropic contribution to a US paediatric hospital. The surgery was so successful that Joe III, now 29, was able to join an elite unit of the US marines and serve in Iraq. Mr Robert, for whom the hospital's existing surgical centre is named, said the idea for the new institute started four years ago, over a casual dinner conversation, when he challenged doctors at Children's to come up with a plan for making paediatric surgery "more like Star Wars".

"I told them to forget about what an operating room looks like today, think about what it would look like in the future," he said. "What would the design look like? What would the equipment look like? How would people work together?" Over the next three years, Mr Robert financed meetings between hospital officials and paediatric care experts from around the world. A business model for the futuristic hospital began to take shape. Last year, during a visit to Abu Dhabi, Mr Robert pitched the plan to Sheikh Mohammed, whom he befriended five years ago on a business trip for US executives hosted by the royal family.

The two were watching the news, he recalled, and discussing "life and kids and world events" when he broached the subject. "I talked about this idea, this dream ? and whether they'd have interest in playing an important role," said Mr Robert, who was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. "It was the perfect match." In addition to the US project, Children's is actively working with Al Qudra Holdings on a "comprehensive paediatric facility" in Abu Dhabi, a hospital spokesperson said. That project is in the "design phase" and "plans are still being finalised".