Applications filed with Palm Beach say Dana-Farber expects to raise $1.25 million from the event. To the medical students, the end does not justify the means. “The advancement of the overall mission of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute cannot come at the expense of the most vulnerable among us,” the students wrote. “At this time of unprecedented uncertainty in the United States, we call on DFCI, as an integral institution of the Harvard Community and a global leader in cancer care and research, to take a strong stand for the health and wellbeing of all patients, no matter their religion or nation of origin.”
Dana-Farber responded with a statement that took a much narrower view of its societal role: “As a cancer care and research organization, we seek to remain solely focused on our singular mission of hope and progress against this disease. … Contracts have been signed, and a large number of people have committed to attend. Cancelling the event outright would only deny much-needed resources for research and care.”
Short notice might be a more consoling argument if similar concerns hadn’t been raised in the past. “This was covered in the press as an issue in September,” said George Karandinos, a Harvard medical student among those leading the backlash. “Partially because this has been brought up before, we're less sympathetic to the argument that the fundraiser is so close.” In light of the fact that President Trump has “sent out a message of exclusion, discrimination, and hate,” Karandinos said, this response “felt very weak.”
Indeed Dana-Farber, which brands itself as a pioneering, trailblazing institution, closed its public statement with the argument that “Other organizations find themselves in a similar position this year and have made a similar decision.” Those other organizations include the Cleveland Clinic, which also has a fundraising gala at Mar-a-Lago this month. In Cleveland, medical students have been protesting as well. They have circulated a petition that has some 1500 signatures.
“I think the ethical obligations of these hospitals are being tested right now, when patients and employees are being threatened,” said Madhuri Nishtala, a medical student at Case Western Reserve University. “They're really not doing what I'd expect them to do, which is stand up for the populations that make them world-class institutions.”
After the tepid response from Dana-Farber, the Harvard students drafted a petition as well, and it circulated quickly. They collected 1,000 signatures in the first day, and 2,000 by the end of the second, mostly from medical professionals in the Harvard community. The names include those of the chief of hematology-oncology at Dana-Farber, as well as cancer patients and their families.
Among them is Alice Smythe, who was diagnosed with an aggressive ovarian cancer in November of 2015. She underwent surgery and a difficult chemotherapy regiment at Dana-Farber. “I'm doing well, as far as I can tell,” she told me last week, not quite a year out from her last chemotherapy. Her praise for Dana-Farber is effusive: “As crazy as it sounds, I felt like this cancer diagnosis was in some ways a good thing, because I had never in my life been on the receiving end of such care and concern and love.” She felt such a debt of gratitude to the institution and her doctor that while she was still in treatment, she gathered friends and family to do some fundraising. As “Team Madame Ovary,” they raised $15,000 to donate to the institute.