Hellman Foundation In Tune with Patients’ Deepest Values

reprinted from Issue 18, Spring 2014 of Frontiers of Medicine (PDF)

Warren Hellman practicing the banjo in the hospital, a few weeks before his death in 2011.

“The Big Twang Theory”

"We were drifting in eternal darkness
Free from joy or pain,
When someone plucked a banjo
And the universe began...
Well, one thing that’s for certain,
It’s been a cosmic trip.
Riding through the ether
On our old-time music ship."

Excerpt By Warren Hellman and Colleen Browne

Warren Hellman – private equity pioneer, philanthropist, founder of San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and banjo player – finished writing one last song while hospitalized for leukemia in 2011.

Hellman was about to play "The Big Twang Theory” for the first time when members of the palliative care team arrived – including Steven Pantilat, MD, the Alan M. Kates and John M. Burnard Endowed Chair in Palliative Care, and social worker Jane Hawgood, LCSW.

"They came in, and it could have been like, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not important. We’ve got to talk about your medical care,’” recalls Tricia Hellman Gibbs, MD, one of Hellman’s four children. "Dad said, ‘I’m singing this song,’ and Steve said, ‘I’d love to hear it!’ That validated my father’s unconventional personality, and allowed him to express something really important to him. It established a bond, where Dad felt comfortable talking about end-of-life issues.

"My father was a fighter all his life – he was an ultramarathoner, very devoted to athletics, extremely successful,” says Gibbs. "As he moved into staring death in the face, he couldn’t himself bring up the kinds of topics that he wanted to talk about. He needed to be given the opportunity to do that, which he received when he encountered the palliative medicine team. It was a tremendous relief to him.”

This experience inspired his family, through the Hellman Foundation, to make a gift to expand palliative care services and enhance the program’s educational and research efforts.

"Philanthropic support is the venture capital for social good,” says Pantilat. "The gift from the Hellman Foundation has created a tremendous opportunity for us to innovate in a creative way, and to make sure that people who need palliative care can get it. Also, our goal is not just making care better at UCSF, but sharing these discoveries so that care gets better across the health care system.”

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