By Sandra Bretting
In the mid-1970s, when young Lee Edward Ellis of Houston contracted Burkitt's lymphoma-a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma-treatment options were limited. Today, 30 years later, the disease has more than an 80 percent survival rate.
Thanks to a recent $1 million donation from the estate of Norma Jean Wiley, Texas Children's hopes to improve those odds even more.
Jean Wiley, as she preferred to be called, passed away in Houston in May 2009, but never forgot the care her young relative, Lee, received at Texas Children's before his death in 1977. Touched by the people she met while visiting him, she decided to remember the hospital in her will.
"Jean was a very bottom-line type of person and she wasn't easily impressed," said Sam Gainer, the estate's independent executor and a family friend. "For her to be so taken with what she saw, it had to be extraordinary."
Wiley's generous gift will be used to support programs and fund research related to leukemia and certain blood disorders.
"Texas Children's has been at the forefront of pediatric cancer research and treatment, but this gift will allow us to do even more," said David Poplack, M.D., director of Texas Children's Cancer Center. "There are cutting-edge studies taking place here that will change the way we treat these diseases, giving hope to even more parents and children."
Currently, the Cancer Center is involved in more than 260 clinical trials to determine the safety and effectiveness of drug treatments used to help children with pediatric cancer.
"If even one parent can be spared the anguish of losing a child, it will be wonderful," said Janie Ellis, Lee's mother. "I'm so thrilled the gift will be used to fund cancer research. In fact, October marks the 32nd anniversary of my son's passing, so this gift is particularly meaningful."
Married for many years to her husband, Dave, founder of industrial parts supplier Wilco Supply of Houston, Wiley enjoyed serving as honorary "aunt" to Lee. She had been one of the last surviving relatives of Lee's parents, Janie and Jim.
"We have a very small family and there's no doubt she loved Lee," Janie said. "But I was still overwhelmed by this gift and her generosity."
Texas Children's Hospital has been ranked the number one children's hospital for pediatric cancer care in Texas this year and the fourth best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
"No matter what—first and foremost—it's about treating the children," said Poplack. "And gifts like this allow us to care for even more children in incredibly innovative ways."