April 12, 2008 — As groundbreakings go, Saturday's ceremony at the University of Virginia was not your typical shovels-in-the-ground variety. Instead of hand spades, a track excavator rolled onto the site of the new Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center Saturday and bit a chunk out of the West Parking Garage wall as members of the Cavalier Marching Band played the 1812 Overture.
A different style groundbreaking was entirely appropriate since the $74 million outpatient facility that will rise on the site is based on what U.Va. President John T. Casteen III described as a bold new vision for cancer care in Virginia.
"This building will bring together great minds to fulfill the promise of an academic medical center," Casteen told the 300 guests who had gathered for the occasion. "Discoveries made here will advance cancer care for future generations."
Before losing her own battle against pancreatic cancer in October 2001, Virginia State Senator Emily Couric had invited the U.Va. community to envision a very special medical facility — a cancer center dedicated to meeting the individual needs of each patient and to treating the whole person, not just the disease.
The U.Va. Board of Visitors approved the naming of the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center in September 2006. The designation honors the late senator for her efforts to acquire new resources for cancer care and research in Virginia.
Members of Couric's family were among those in attendance at event Saturday.
"[Emily Couric] inspired us to envision a larger mission for the University's Cancer Center and to raise our aspirations," Casteen said. "Emily's husband, George Beller (a cardiologist at the health system), has worked tirelessly to carry forward her ideas."
Addressing the media prior to the formal ceremony, Emily Couric's sister, U.Va. alumna and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, called the event "bittersweet."
"We would much rather be here with Emily celebrating another great accomplishment of hers," Couric said. "But we are really happy and grateful that so many people have come together to honor her…. She thought to have a first-class cancer center that focused on patients and not just the disease would be a wonderful thing for this community."
In his remarks to the gathering, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine called Emily Couric a wonderful public servant.
"Our lives are all very short. Some, Emily's and others, are too short," Kaine said. "In that shortness, we hope we gain some perspective. We have to be wise and focus on the things that matter and let go to the things that don't. Things that matter [are] care for others, advancement of knowledge so that future generations can have it better than we do, compassion. That's what wisdom is. That's what Emily Couric demonstrated in her life."
Beller, who was recognized by several of the speakers for his instrumental role in the center's developed, recalled his late wife's commitment to issues of health care on behalf of her constituents.
"Emily was especially proud of her efforts to improve access to high quality health care for the citizens of Virginia," he said. "But when it came to issues related to cancer, she became an even more passionate advocate."
When completed in 2011, the five-story, 150,000-square-foot center will provide state-of-the-art therapies and comprehensive cancer care services to patients and their families.
Dr. Michael J. Weber, director of the U.Va. Cancer Center, described the new facility as a great opportunity to build the future of cancer care. That future, he said, puts the patient at a center of "a matrix of care" and treats individuals based on the individual's characteristics and the specific characteristics of his or her cancer.
Currently, the U.Va. Cancer Center handles 41,000 outpatient visits a year and serves patients from Virginia and surrounding regions. One-third of its patients travel at least 100 miles to access services.
The new Couric Center will bring together multidisciplinary teams of caregivers and researchers and enable them to collaborate in treating patients. Beside offering physician consultations, family and patient counseling, infusion, high-tech radiotherapy and imaging services, the center will give patients access to a greater variety of clinical trials and new drug options. The facility will also house a pharmacy, a women’s cancer clinic, an image boutique that will sell wigs, breast prostheses and other items needed by patients, a meditation room and activity areas.
"When fighting cancer, hope matters," said R. Edward Howell, vice president and chief operative officer of the U.Va. Health Center. "Today we take an important step toward building a place full of hope and healing and a promise for a brighter future for all of us."
Funding for the Couric Center has come from both public and private sources. The Commonwealth of Virginia has appropriated $25 million, and the U.Va. Medical Center has committed $20 million. Private donors have provided approximately $16 million. Fundraising continues for the balance of the estimated $74 million in construction costs.
Fundraising is also under way for a proposed $4.6 million Education and Resource Center that will be built adjacent to the Couric Center. That facility will offer patient education and sponsor outreach programs to mobilize caregivers, community organizations and citizens in the fight against cancer.