Foundation helps patients, families with the costs of cancer

The group honors a Columbia surgeon.
Monday, May 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:37 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008
VINCENT GURUCHARRI was a thoracic surgeon who practiced in Boone County from 1980 to 2003.

After Martha Broyles’ husband was diagnosed with brain cancer, she wasn’t able to work and had to spend time at home to take care of him. Bob Broyles was receiving disability pay, but they were having problems paying the bills.

The Broyleses talked to Laura Neal, their oncology social worker at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, about their options. She referred them to the Vincent P. Gurucharri Foundation, an organization that provides financial assistance to cancer patients in Boone County.

Within a day or so of getting in touch with Neal, Martha Broyles said, their utility bills were no longer a problem.

“It was a very rapid response, and very appreciated, too,” she said.

The Gurucharri Foundation was started in memory of Vincent Gurucharri, a thoracic surgeon who practiced in Boone County from 1980 to 2003. In December 2001, Gurucharri was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of pre-leukemia that can be helped with a bone marrow transplant.

From May 2002 to November 2003, he kept a diary on the Boone Hospital Center Web site titled “Diary of a Bone Marrow Transplant,” which documented his transplant and treatment. He died in December 2003.

As a surgeon, Gurucharri was well-known for his passion for his patients.

“He loved medicine, he loved taking care of people, he loved surgery,” said Jean Gurucharri, Vincent Gurucharri’s wife and a member of the foundation’s board. “He was just a person that always thought of the other person first.”

As a surgeon, Vincent Gurucharri would sometimes waive fees that patients could not afford to pay, said Karen Althage, the foundation’s president and a cancer survivor who knew Gurucharri.

“He would either do something for nothing or would reduce his price,” she said.

Inspired by Vincent Gurucharri’s love of patients, two nurses who worked with him came up with the idea to continue his work with what became the Gurucharri Foundation, Jean Gurucharri said.

The foundation was started a little more than a year ago after two years of legal preparation, Althage said. Applicants from Boone County can receive up to $500 a year to cover expenses such as bills, rent, car payments and child care. The foundation has given more than $15,000 to patients and families. The foundation is run by a board of directors, each of whom knew Vincent Gurucharri.

Neal said many families in Boone County are “stuck in the middle” because they do not qualify for Medicare or Medicaid and have difficulty meeting the costs of medical bills.

“The foundation pays for odd things, like credit card bills or for new tires, so (the families) can focus their finances on cancer care,” Neal said.

Patients are referred to the foundation by their social workers, who fill out the application for the families. Neal said she has referred about 25 patients to the Gurucharri Foundation and that every one received assistance.

“The other wonderful piece of this is that it’s a 24-hour turnaround,” she said. “No other organization that I’ve worked with in all of my years of social work has ever been able to do that.”

The second annual “A Night at the Speedway,” the foundation’s major fundraiser, was held April 24 at the Elks Lodge and featured Nancy Sterling, the mother of NASCAR star and Columbia native Carl Edwards, as the guest speaker. The event raised more than $32,000, Althage said. The 2006 “A Night at the Speedway” raised a little more than $20,000.

“The community has been absolutely wonderful in giving to us, either in donations or in our fundraisers,” Althage said.

In January, Neal spoke to the foundation’s board of directors about the possibility of expanding its services.

Because of Neal’s efforts, Althage said, the foundation is working to expand assistance to Audrain, Callaway, Cole, Moniteau, Cooper, Howard and Randolph counties and to boost the amount of financial aid from $500 to $750.

“I’m just really thrilled that we have the opportunity to expand,” Althage said.

Jean Gurucharri said she is appreciative of the foundation and overwhelmed by the response.

“My husband would never have expected anything done like this in his name,” she said. “I think it is just very humbling, knowing that someone wanted to do that for him.”

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