2012 WebMD Health Heroes

From the WebMD Archives

Bonnie Addario

bonnie addarioDiagnosed with lung cancer in 2003, Bonnie Addario says her first thought was, "I can't believe this." Her second thought: "I'm going to beat this."

Her odds weren't great: The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 16% (compared with 99% for both early-stage breast cancer and prostate cancer). But after months of difficult treatments, Addario, 65, recovered and decided to help others survive the disease. Lung cancer research receives a fraction of the funding other cancer research attracts. So in 2006, she set up the Bonnie J. Addario Foundation from her home in San Carlos, Calif., to raise awareness of lung cancer and money for research. To date, her foundation has raised $10 million.

Then she held a summit in San Francisco for lung cancer researchers. "I asked, 'If money were no object, what's the one thing you would do to increase survivability?'' she says. The answer: Develop a bio-repository of tissue, blood, and plasma samples from lung cancer patients that researchers could study. In response, Addario's second nonprofit, the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute, developed bio-repositories in California and Colorado that scientists and doctors at 17 institutions in the United States and Europe now use for joint research.

Addario believes lung cancer research funding is so low because the disease carries a stigma. "People associate lung cancer with smoking," she says. "But 80 percent of newly diagnosed patients never smoked or quit decades ago. We have to get around that so we can turn survival into the norm, not the exception."

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Richard and Debra Siravo

richard and debra siravoWhen Richard and Debra Siravo's 5-year-old year-old son, Matty, died after a prolonged epileptic seizure in 2003, the couple and their other three sons were devastated. Matty's seizure occurred after brain surgery to reduce the epilepsy symptoms he'd had since infancy. It was "truly a tragedy" that the young boy died instead, Richard, 51, says.

Rather than succumb to grief or anger, Debra, a schoolteacher, and Richard, who owned an insurance adjuster business, decided to help others. Starting in their basement in Wakefield, R.I., they set up The Matty Fund to provide information and resources to other families dealing with epilepsy. "We couldn't return to our jobs or daily routine," Richard says. "No one was assisting Rhode Island families dealing with epilepsy at the time." Adds Debra, 49, "We wanted to take something horrific and turn it into something positive."

Today the fund has raised $1.5 million and provides workshops, support groups, a therapeutic horseback riding camp, epilepsy awareness programs in schools, and money for scholarships and epilepsy research. Richard and Debra's sons, now ages 23, 21, and 19, have helped with the organization's events and programs since its start—the eldest serves on its board of directors. "They were always at Matty's side, watching over him," Richard says. "They learned so much by having a disabled little brother. They carry Matty's spirit wherever they go."

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Bonnie Stehr

bonnie stehrTwo years ago, Bonnie Stehr's husband, Glenn, asked her what she wanted for Christmas. "To lose 50 pounds," she replied. To motivate herself, she devised a plan to hold a weight loss challenge, complete with cash prizes and fundraising for a charity. Excited, she took her idea to her boss at Therapeutic Associates in Port Angeles, Wash., a physical therapy clinic. "She got excited, too," Stehr says, "even though neither of us had done anything like this before."

The two women partnered with a nurse practitioner from Volunteers in Medicine of the Olympics (VIMO), which raises money for health services for under- and uninsured patients. Together, the team set up the 90-day Olympic Weight Loss Challenge. Some 124 community members signed up, donating $100 each. They jointly lost 1,256 pounds. The 48 contestants who lost 5% or more of their body weight won money, with the six top winners' getting $500 each. The remaining $5,380 went to VIMO.

The contest was "so much fun," Stehr says, they decided to do a second round last April. That contest attracted 90 people, who jointly lost 534 pounds and raised another $1,250 for VIMO.

"I really like helping people," says Stehr, now retired from the clinic. "And I absolutely loved that people were raising money for the working poor while losing weight. It was great." Stehr herself lost 25 pounds during the contests. "I didn't get to my goal," she admits, "but I'll be first in line for the next challenge."

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Robina Suwol

robina suwalIn 1998, a school gardener inadvertently sprayed Robina Suwol's 6-year-old son and other children with pesticides as they walked into their Sherman Oaks, Calif., elementary school. Her son's resulting asthma attack prompted Suwol to investigate pesticide use in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She discovered LAUSD used 160 pesticides, many linked to learning disabilities, cancer, asthma, and other illnesses in children and adults.

Rather than focus on one school, Suwold took on the whole district— no small task, given that LAUSD, with 1,000 school sites, is the country's second largest. "I didn't try to be litigious or create an enormous PR campaign," she says. "My intent is always to work collaboratively. When this approach is successful, great things can happen."

Over the next year, Suwol's program, California Safe Schools, a coalition of parents, teachers, medical experts, and scientists, helped LAUSD adopt the most stringent pesticide policy in the nation, banning all products lacking safety records. Two years later, the California Legislature passed the Healthy Schools Act of 2000, which mandates parents' right to know about the pesticides schools use. Four years after that, the state passed AB 405 (Montañez), banning school districts from using experimental pesticides.

"These laws have protected 6 million children and hundreds of thousands of school employees," says Suwol. "Children have no vote, no lobbyists. They depend on adults to protect them. We're committed to doing that."

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