Denny Sanford, Children's Health Advocate
T. Denny Sanford's childhood was not easy. At age 4, he lost his mother to breast cancer, and when he was 21, his father died of heart disease. His life could have gone in a bad direction. But he went on to achieve personal and financial success in business and 6 years ago devoted himself to funding health care initiatives and institutions -- especially those dedicated to children. "I think health is an area where you can make the biggest difference and that's what I'm trying to do," he says.
Sanford Health is now building a network of Sanford Children's Clinics around the world in communities lacking pediatric care. (Sanford Health is a sponsor of WebMD.) The organization has also established The Sanford Project, a cutting edge initiative to cure type 1 diabetes. "You see these kids who have 15 pokes a day with a needle and the pain that they go through," he says, "and you can identify with it. Diabetes is unfortunately one of those situations that we don't recognize because the people otherwise act normal. But that's only if they get the proper care and take the proper medications."
He's also excited about the idea of helping to cure Type 2 diabetes, because it can be caused by environmental conditions (poor diet and not enough exercise) and so can be cured by environmental conditions (more exercise and better nutrition). "It is so much more easily cured," he says. "We can get take care of that in a heartbeat."
Sanford, 74, initially got involved with children's healthcare, "for the children," he says, "but when you meet pediatric staff in hospitals and at schools [you realize] it's not just a job for them, it's a passion to save lives and help these little tykes. Children do not have a voice and we're trying to give it to them."
Christy Turlington Burns, Mothers' Helper
When former super model Christy Turlington Burns started hemorrhaging during the birth of her daughter in 2003, the staff at her modern birthing center in New York treated her easily. But two years later, when she was pregnant with her second child, she traveled to Central America as a CARE ambassador and met pregnant women who had to walk miles and miles just for clean water.
That's when a global crisis hit home for her. Hundreds of thousands of women die every year from pregnancy or childbirth complications, and more than 90 percent of these deaths are preventable or treatable when there is access to quality medical care and supplies, says United Nations.
Turlington Burns, 41, whose mother is originally from El Salvador, decided to make a documentary, her first, about what she saw. Called No Woman, No Cry, it debuted at New York's TriBeCa Film Festival last May and is slated for general release/TV broadcast next spring, around Mother's Day. It portrays the state of maternal health in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and the US. She also launched the interactive website, everymothercounts.org, to help create a worldwide maternal health movement.
"Life and death are very close in that moment…and baby steps can make a powerful noise" about this issue, she says. "Calling women by their names, not numbers; using floral sheets instead of white, which signifies death in many cultures; using a curtain during delivery…. you'd be surprised at what works."
Her passion goes beyond movie making, and she's now enrolled in Columbia University's public health master's program. "Going to graduate school has given me credibility to be part of the dialogue," she says.
Tiffany Denyer, Connecting Dogs and People
Tiffany Denyer always knew she loved animals and was interested in emotional and behavioral issues. "After I got my degree in psychiatric nursing, I started doing pet therapy with my dog, Maddie. We visited Alzheimer patients and the mentally ill and did play therapy with children."
Denyer, 36, earned a service dog certification, a degree in animal behavior, and then merged her two interests by establishing Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville, TN, in 2005. Wilderwood is among the first service dog organizations to specialize in training dogs to be companions to kids and adults with neurological conditions, including autism, dementia, and mild intellectual disability.
Over the last six years, Wilderwood has trained and placed 43 dogs with people with neurological disorders, about 90 percent with children. Starting this winter, Wilderwood will partner with Breakthrough (a local treatment center for adults with autism) to provide job and social skills.
Wilderwood is also working with University of Tennessee researchers to track how people with service dogs fare in the world, as well as another study on how people with service dogs communicate and cope. The results, Denyer hopes, will lead to more research and funding for this new field.
"The dogs are trained to keep people safe," Denyer says, but adds that's not all -- a dog also touches a child's spirit. "The relationship with a service dog can impact a child's life more than therapy or medicine combined," she says. "It is truly life changing."
Caren Hoffman, A Big Sister Reaches Out
Caren Hoffman's mission to help sick children began at age 13, when her younger brother, Sam, then 8, needed a bone marrow transplant. Sam had Fanconi anemia, a genetic disease that can lead to bone marrow failure at an early age, then leukemia, and then a variety of cancers.
The family traveled to New York City and decided they would live at the Ronald McDonald House during Sam's hospitalization. At first, "I hated it and the hospital," Hoffman says. "I missed my friends and my school and my house." But when she started doing art with the children there, she discovered a passion. "Painting with these sick little kids made me feel good," she says, "because I could tell that painting made them happy."
Because of his transplant, Sam didn't develop leukemia. But Caren went on to become a Leader in Training at Paul Newman's "Hole in the Wall Gang" camp -- also for chronically ill children -- which further strengthened Hoffman's love of helping children. So when she turned 15, she started "Bromfield Against Cancer," a student club at her small public high school in rural Massachusetts to raise money for other families with sick children. "Our town raised a lot of money for us when we went to New York with Sam," she recalls. "I wanted to do the same for others."
In 2009, Bromfield Against Cancer took part in a local Relay for Life event, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, that raised a total of $87,000. In addition, with one town-wide spaghetti dinner, BAC raised another $10,000 for their principal, whose daughter also has cancer.
Now a senior in high school, Hoffman, 17, says her "dream job" is to "become a family counselor who works with kids who have cancer and their families." Looking back to the time when Sam, now 12 and cancer free, was sick, giving back by helping other kids, "is the best decision I've ever made."
Patricia Furlong, Bringing Hope to Families
When Patricia Furlong's sons, Christopher and Patrick, were diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy in 1984, the doctor simply said, "There is no hope." At that time there was no treatment for the disease, the major type of muscular dystrophy and the most common fatal genetic disorder.
Duchenne strikes only boys and leads to progressive muscle weakness, an inability to move the arms and legs, and, eventually death. Yet while Furlong, 63, a former ICU/CCU room nurse, was often overwhelmed, she didn't give up hope. "I remember one day I told Chris, 'I want a miracle,' she recalls. "And he looked at me and said, "'Miracles don't just happen for one or two of us, Mommy. They have to happen for all of us.'"
Furlong threw herself into creating those miracles. In 1994, she established Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy to bring parents, researchers and doctors together to fundraise and advocate for better care for Duchenne patients. PPMD's lobbying efforts resulted in Congress passing the MD-CARE Act in 2001, which designated funds for research on muscular dystrophy. As a result, boys with Duchenne now walk into their teens and 20s.
Her own sons stopped walking at 9 and died at 15 and 17. But every time Furlong meets a new family, she thinks, ""All I ever wanted was to buy five minutes more of life for my sons. I can't fix everything for these families. But I can try to buy them five minutes more."
Christopher Gavigan, Creating a Safer World
After earning a college degree in environmental sciences, Christopher Gavigan set up a company that provided wilderness expedition experiences for teens -- many of whom had emotional and behavioral issues. "I discovered the reality of their toxic childhood and how they were affected by chemicals growing up," he says. "That started my passion for 'children's environmental health' and creating a world free of toxic chemicals for them."
Gavigan, 36, knew he had to reach parents. In 2005 when he became executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World, a nonprofit that works to improve children's health by eliminating toxics from their environment, he focused on identifying small steps rather than big leaps for parents.
Using a multimedia approach -- HCHW's website (which Access Communication ranked in the top 20 "Mommy blogs" in 2010), DVDs, an iPhone app with shopping lists for healthy products, the book Healthy Child Healthy World, videos, celebrity endorsements, public service announcements, corporate partnerships, "Mom on a Mission" awards, and guides to local, state, and federal policy initiatives -- HCHW has reached hundreds of millions of parents.
And the organization plans to roll out a new program -- called the Healthcare Education Campaign -- to get its information to parents via doctors' offices next year. "Our goal is to make information available, inspiring, and do-able for the modern family, so they are empowered to create a safer, healthier world," Gavigan says. "We want people to live happy, healthy lives."
Gavigan left HCHW in mid-October and isn't yet sure what his next project will be. But wherever he lands, he says, he'll be working to "make a positive impact on children, family and the environment. That's my life work."