Medical Students Inspired to Make a Difference

The three students all say they received mentorship and support from the Scott Scholars Program at UNO, and now as part of UNMC’s inaugural class

By Connie White

Ryan Chapman wants to help others, so he hopes someday to be an internal medicine physician or study infectious diseases.

Heather Richard feels drawn to pediatric hematology and oncology because she loves working with children.

Nour Elrokhsi is exploring a career as a primary care physician because she has personally witnessed how health care can change lives.

Chapman, Richard and Elrokhsi, all from the Omaha area, are medical students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. All three say their interest in health care stems from a desire to make a difference in the world. And all three credit the Scott Scholars Program with providing mentorship and support to inspire their future health care careers.

The Suzanne & Walter Scott Foundation pledged $23 million to sustain and grow the prestigious Scott Scholars Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where it was established by the late Omaha philanthropist Walter Scott, Jr. The gift commitment also supports an expansion of the program to UNMC, where 12 Scott Scholars began their first year of medical school in fall 2023.

Chapman, Richard and Elrokhsi all are graduates of the UNO Scott Scholars Program, launched in 1997 to help keep high-achieving STEM students in Nebraska. The three also are members of the inaugural class of Scott Scholars at UNMC.

Here are their stories:

Ryan Chapman

Chapman, who graduated from Skutt Catholic High School, said that when he arrived at UNO, he planned to become a computer programmer. Then he did a computer science internship with a local company between his freshman and sophomore years. He had a good experience but decided he wanted a career where he could make a more personal impact.

That fall, he enrolled in more science courses and volunteered for the Omaha VA Medical Center.

“I decided that I wanted a job where I’m able to directly work with and help other people,” he said. “I think the Scott Scholars Program helped me to think about it.”

He said his path to medical school was a direct result of leadership classes he took in the Scott Scholars Program, along with the mentorship of Harnoor Dhaliwal, Ph.D., and Wayne Watkins, the leaders of the program.

“The Scott Scholars Program has challenged me to think beyond what I imagined for myself and encouraged me to find a career where I can impact the lives of others,” Chapman said. “I know UNMC will train me to be a great physician.”

Heather Richard

Richard, who graduated from Bellevue West High School, said she has always been interested in the human body and science. Through volunteer opportunities and clinical experiences at UNO, she set a goal to become a physician.

“I have a profound desire to make an impact on patients’ lives,” Richard said.

She said the Scott Scholars Program provided her with a sense of community and made her UNO undergraduate experience enjoyable. Growing up, she was shy and introverted. The program’s leaders helped her step out of her shell and develop communication skills and grow her confidence. She also learned that there are different kinds of leaders.

“You can be a leader even if you’re more quiet and more introverted,” Richard said.

She recalled meeting Walter Scott, Jr., during a reception while a UNO student.

“I remember he treated us with kindness and with so much respect,” she said. “We were a part of his community and his family, in a way.”

After she finishes her training, Richard said, she hopes to practice medicine in Nebraska.

“My family is here,” she said. “I want to be involved in this community and serve Nebraska.”

Nour Elrokhsi

Elrokhsi, who graduated from Millard North High School, said she always knew she wanted to work in health care. Her parents are physicians, so she learned early on the power of health care to change lives.

“Medicine has been something I’ve been around my whole life,” she said.

Through the Scott Scholars Program, she worked with the Munroe-Meyer Institute to propose design ideas for its dental clinic. Working with a team of students that included Richard, the group offered ideas to make neurodivergent patients more comfortable, including adjustments to lighting, images on the projector screens, and even the texture on the exam chairs.

Elrokhsi said primary care is an umbrella term for a host of specialties, including pediatrics, internal medicine and family medicine. She said another area of interest is psychiatry.

“I like the personal aspects of these specialties,” she said. “You get to know your patients, and they become friends.”

She is “just incredibly grateful” for the scholarship assistance she has received through the Scott Scholars Program and for the mentorship and support.

“They believe in you more than you believe in yourself,” Elrokhsi said of the program’s leaders.

She sees herself staying in Nebraska after she completes her medical school training.

“Nebraska has grown on me,” said Elrokhsi, who was born in Libya. “UNMC is an incredible institution and to be able to do my medical training here is a privilege. To continue that here would be wonderful.”

Bridging the Drug Discovery Gap

By Kristen A. Schmitt

When Marsha and Neal Morien of Arizona decided to invest in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Center for Drug Design and Innovation, they knew it could benefit not only the state of Nebraska, but possibly the world. That’s because the newly opened center has a critical goal: to help shift the paradigm of drug discovery and development.

“We live in an environment where there are many opportunities to give, but instead of making a small impact, we wanted to put our funds toward a larger opportunity that can make a difference,” Marsha Morien said. The Moriens’ gift commitment is being matched by funds available through an estate gift made by College of Pharmacy alumnus Joe Williams and his wife, Millie.

The current system of drug discovery and development is ripe for innovation. Large pharmaceutical companies employ some of the world’s best minds in drug development, but to maintain the complex infrastructure needed to bring a billion-dollar-plus drug through FDA approval, these companies tend to focus on blockbuster drugs. Within that paradigm, it may make little financial sense to develop drugs such as antibiotics, which are designed to be taken for a short period of time, or drugs that are otherwise unlikely to generate significant sales, such as so-called “orphan” drugs. These drugs, however, may be critically needed by hundreds of thousands of people or, in the case of antibiotics, millions.

UNO’s close proximity to the University of Nebraska Medical Center makes it an essential player in tackling this challenge by providing foundational STEM classes and a path to a health professions education.

Keith Olsen, Pharm.D., is the Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of UNMC's College of Pharmacy.

This center will be a critical resource for the design of new therapeutics that provide new hope for Nebraskans facing challenging medical diagnoses.

Corey Hopkins, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutical sciences in the UNMC College of Pharmacy and the center’s inaugural director, said the Moriens’ gift couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It shows that the vision we had for the center is supported,” he said. “We have people behind it and this gift will benefit UNMC, the College of Pharmacy and Nebraska.”

An important first step in drug discovery and development is seed funding for novel research, which the Moriens’ gift will help provide. Seed funding allows researchers to complete their study or conduct another series of experiments to move their projects along  — either closer to translation into treatments or to obtaining a patent.

“The hardest part with grant funding is you first have to have results,”  Hopkins said. “A gift like this one from Marsha and Neal can act as the start of a new project rather than [researchers having to] rely on federal funding. It can help jump-start new and promising ideas.”

Along with allowing more opportunity to obtain federal grants, seed funding also can help the center  — and its researchers  — gain industry interest, which can lead to potential partnerships and funding for additional research.

Keith Olsen, Pharm.D., who serves as the Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of UNMC’s College of Pharmacy, said the center not only will lay the foundation for seminal contributions from UNMC’s research faculty as well as the wider University of Nebraska System, but it also will put the university on par with other Big Ten institutions.

“Most importantly,” Olsen said, “this center will be a critical resource for the design of new therapeutics that provide new hope for Nebraskans facing challenging medical diagnoses.”

‘Public Health, It’s Everything’

Trustee is a Passionate Advocate for the College of Public Health

By Robyn Murray

Katie Weitz holds up a board of colorful graphics. It shows a farm, a neighborhood, a bus line and a hospital, each connected by small arrows. The board is an illustration of the many areas of life that encompass public health. It was created by the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, for which Weitz is a passionate advocate.

“The College of Public Health, it’s everything,” Weitz said. “It’s how to make the world a better place.”

A University of Nebraska Foundation Trustee, Weitz serves as chair of the Only in Nebraska campaign committee for the College of Public Health, and she uses the illustration to explain to people what public health means. It can be difficult to describe. The American Public Health Association says, “Public health promotes and protects the health of all people and their communities.” A few examples it lists are tracking disease outbreaks and vaccinating communities; addressing the impact of climate change on our health; developing worker safety standards; and working to prevent gun violence.

“The College of Public Health is taking on all the system issues,” Weitz said. “I think public health is the study of the interplay between the systems and the individuals. I really love the spectrum of perspectives that it brings.”

Since becoming a campaign volunteer, Weitz has worked to educate and engage people about public health. She said her goal is to broaden the base of support for the college, which has existed only since 2006 and whose graduates typically earn less than those from other UNMC colleges.

“If I had to group [public health students and faculty] into a category, I’d say these are the change-makers,” Weitz said. “These are people who are making a global difference and a local difference on the individual and social level.”

“If I had to group [public health students and faculty] into a category, I’d say these are the change-makers. These are people who are making a global difference and a local difference on the individual and social level.”

In her role for the campaign, Weitz has thought of fundraising in broader terms — not just about raising money  — and has come up with innovative ways to increase engagement. Not only has she made generous gifts supporting the college and the Trustees Fund for the Future, but she also has connected the foundation with people interested in public health and hosted several events, including film screenings, panel discussions, postcard writing activities, focus groups and even a murder-mystery-style fundraiser, where guests solved clues to find the source of an infectious disease outbreak. The events brought together nonprofit leaders, policymakers and faculty members from the college.

“Having people interested and engaged with the university is just as important as how much money they can give to the campaign or to the college,” Weitz said. “We’re never going to solve these problems with private money. So, their social capital is important  — how they vote, who they talk to, it really matters.”

Weitz serves as president of the Weitz Family Foundation, and her passion for education and volunteerism is rooted in her family. Her parents, Barbara and Wally Weitz, have made transformational gifts to the university, and Barbara Weitz currently serves as a University of Nebraska regent.

“The idea of tithing was a big deal in our family early on,” Katie Weitz said, “not just that 10% of your allowance should go in the little church envelopes, but also service. I was writing letters in protest of injustice in first grade. It was just part of how we talked and what we talked about.”

Weitz, who has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in human development and social policy, began her career as a teacher. Today, she said she is inspired in her philanthropic work by the people on the ground.

“The teachers inspire me; the people who are starting nonprofits or working in nonprofits; the academics,” she said. “They’re so passionate about the work they do. It’s contagious. I think I get energy and hope and find myself committing to things because of the individuals who are doing the work.”

While Weitz has hosted numerous events of various sizes, she encourages trustees looking to advocate for the university to start small.

“Start with your friends,” she said. “Just gathering a few people and a faculty member together, talking about an issue is fabulous. It’s the little mind shifts that happen when you meet new people and learn new things.”

Weitz said education is critical for a thriving democracy, and she encourages other trustees to use their social networks to communicate and advocate for the important work being done at the university.

“Our dollars can go a lot further if we’re able to use these informal networks of messaging, bringing people in and helping them understand the issues,” she said. “I’m sure trustees who have relationships and colleges where their passions are could find those same kinds of passion points. Having more of the community connected to the university benefits the university, our state and democracy.”

A Global View to Giving Back

Burnett Society member creates opportunities for future nurses to travel the world

By Robyn Murray

Early in her career, Sharon Redding found herself riding on a camel through the Sahara Desert — wondering what on earth she was doing there.

“So here I am out in the middle of the Sahara Desert, trooping along on the top of this camel,” Redding recalled, “and I’m thinking, this is nursing?”

Redding had recently graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center with her nursing degree and joined the Peace Corps. On one of her first assignments, she was sent to Chad to immunize the local residents. It was the first of many adventures for Redding, who is a Burnett Society member and an excellent example of living life to the fullest.

“If I went home and told people this is what I was doing, they would look at me like, Sharon, what are you thinking?” she said. “But I thought it was great fun. I mean, I thought, why not make it fun to be a nurse?”

Redding has traveled to more countries than she can count — 50 to 75, she estimates — as both a tourist and a working nurse. With a quick wit and no-nonsense style, Redding has an abundance of interesting stories from her adventures, like the time she flew over Mount Everest in a tiny plane, an experience she describes as life-changing.

“To see the entire chain of Mount Everest, and all these mountains sticking up out of the clouds, made you feel so small and so humble,” Redding said. “And I’m sitting there thinking, I’m actually doing this. I’m at the top of the world — and I didn’t have to climb anything.”

Redding, who later earned her master’s degree from the University of Washington and her doctorate in education from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, taught nursing at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha for 24 years. She took numerous trips with students, encouraging them to see the world from a global perspective. That view is crucial, Redding said, especially for nurses, who work with diverse populations.

“We don’t just work with people who are born and raised in the United States,” Redding said. “[We work with] immigrants, people from different cultures. And you need to be very savvy about how you integrate teaching … and be attuned to cultural values.”

That belief led Redding to set a new goal later in life: to leave a legacy for the next generation of nurses that would allow them to experience the wonder and adventure of global travel. Working with the University of Nebraska Foundation, Redding established a planned gift to support UNMC nursing students and provide funding for international travel experiences.

Burnett Society member Sharon Redding riding a camel in the Sahara Desert on one of her first Peace Corps assignments as a working nurse.
Redding estimates she has traveled to 50-75 countries in her lifetime and says the experience of visiting and living in other countries has been indispensable in her career as a nurse.

“I want to make sure that my legacy is supporting students who want to be engaged in these kinds of activities,” Redding said. “Nursing and international experiences go together. And for me, that’s why I like the idea of planned giving, knowing that what I’m doing is going to continue, because I believe in that.”

Redding encourages others to think back on their careers and what they loved most as they make their estate plans.

“When did they feel the best in their career? What were things that made them the most satisfied with what they were doing? And then see if you can direct your planned giving in that direction,” she said.

And while not all careers have included riding on camels through the Sahara, Redding encourages others to be creative in their gift planning and consider giving to something that will have a lifelong benefit.

“That involves giving to people who then can turn around and do the same thing that you did,” Redding said. “I think that’s what’s exciting about working with an organization like the Burnett Society to really make your dream come true or make your life activities go on for who knows how long.”

Inspired to be a Pharmacist

Support the College of Pharmacy Excellence Fund

UNMC Williams Scholar Andrea López Mercado is ‘super, super grateful’ for scholarship assistance

By Susan Houston Klaus

For the residents of Puerto Rico who survived a Category 5 hurricane in September 2017, time has been divided into “before Maria” and “after Maria.”

University of Nebraska Medical Center student Andrea López Mercado grew up in the town of Lares and lived there during the storm.

She chose to pursue a Doctor of Pharmacy degree in large part because she was inspired by the role of pharmacists in her community after Hurricane Maria. A scholarship made possible by the generosity of pharmacy alumnus Joe Williams is helping López Mercado achieve her goal.

She recalls that after the hurricane, many businesses were closed. But the pharmacies remained open — a haven for residents in the days, weeks and months after the storm.

López Mercado noticed the role pharmacists played, providing medication storage for those without power, offering a cool place to get some air or charge a cell phone, or simply lending emotional support.

“That’s when I saw that pharmacists were pillars in the community,” she said.

Years later, the kindnesses she observed during that time had an impact on her choice of career.

“That’s kind of where I started learning,” López Mercado said. “When I was seeing this, and basically how they were on the front line of this emergency, I started to research a bit more into pharmacy. That’s where I ended up kind of falling in love with it because I saw how broad and big this profession is.”

Today, she’s a first-year student in the College of Pharmacy.

López Mercado is a Williams Scholar, the recipient of a scholarship created as a result of an estate gift from Williams, who died in 2021.

Williams was a leader in the pharmaceutical industry, having served at the helm of industry giants Parke-Davis and Warner-Lambert.

Williams and his wife, Millie, have been generous supporters of the College of Pharmacy. The Williams name is found throughout new and former pharmacy buildings, including Joseph D. & Millie E. Williams Science Hall. The couple also were among the principal benefactors of the UNMC Center for Drug Discovery and Lozier Center for Pharmacy Sciences and Education. Williams was a driving force behind the college’s first endowed faculty chair, the Parke-Davis Chair in Pharmaceutics and Drug Delivery.

Williams left the college an estate gift of $20 million, through Only in Nebraska: A Campaign for Our University’s Future. Part of that gift funds scholarships for students like López Mercado.

The Williams scholarships range from $2,500 to $10,000. Tuition aid allows students to lessen debt and helps UNMC to compete for some of the nation’s top students.

López Mercado was already looking at pharmacy programs when her husband, a member of the U.S. Air Force, left Puerto Rico to be stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.

“UNMC just overall seemed like an amazing school,” she said. “It was an obvious choice. I applied, and, thankfully, they accepted me.”

In her acceptance letter, López Mercado also learned she would be a Williams Scholar.

Finding out she received the scholarship, “was incredible,” she said. “I was super, super grateful.”

The support has eased a lot of the financial burden for her.

“It made me feel a lot better going into this, knowing that I was getting some help,” López Mercado said.

When she learned Williams’ story, she was even more inspired. In fall 2023, she had the opportunity to meet Millie Williams and thank her for the couple’s generosity.

López Mercado says her experience so far as a pharmacy student has given her an even broader knowledge of career possibilities.

“I have been exposed to so many areas of pharmacy that I didn’t even know existed,” she said.

Wherever the future takes López Mercado — whether it’s staying in Omaha, moving back to Puerto Rico or living in another place — she envisions herself as a reliable resource for people in her community.

“For now,” she said, “all that I can say is that I just want to be someone who people can go to and hopefully make a positive impact in their life.”

Receiving the Williams Scholarship, López Mercado said, means the world to her.

“I feel like it was a confirmation that I was doing the right thing,” she said, “that I was going to the right place, and kind of like my dreams and aspirations were valid and achievable.”

Simulating to Keep Patients Safe

By Ed Rider

UNMC Leads the Way in High-Tech Learning

Nothing can prepare an individual for the real thing like the real thing.

Visual simulation, however, has long been acknowledged for the important role it plays in potentially high-risk industries like transportation, aerospace and power. Simulators provide a safe and controlled environment for individuals learning to fly an aircraft or drive a car, helping them navigate challenging situations while developing the confidence and intuition to manage real-life scenarios in the air and on the road.

In health care, the advancement of technology has played a critical role in the expansion of visualization and simulation. Through the Interprofessional Experiential Center for Enduring Learning (iEXCEL) at the Dr. Edwin G. & Dorothy Balbach Davis Global Center, the University of Nebraska Medical Center has taken a leadership role in the utilization and development of simulation and visualization technologies.

Uyen Tran, a second-year medical student at UNMC, said the Visualization Hub has had an “immense” impact by bringing what she has learned in lectures and textbooks to life. The Hastings, Nebraska, native is interested in pursuing pediatric neurosurgery or pediatric surgery after she graduates in 2026.

“The technology gives medical students the opportunity to ask questions, learn from faculty and most importantly — to make mistakes in a safe space instead of on actual patients. Being able to make mistakes without consequences and troubleshoot to learn from those mistakes helps to build confidence in students and hopefully improve patient outcomes.”

Uyen Tran poses in her graduation gown

The technology gives medical students the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe place.

“As a combined visual and kinetic learner, the Visualization Hub maximizes my learning experience by allowing me to interact hands-on with medical animations and manipulate anatomical structures on screen,” Tran said. “The ability to visualize these medical structures from all sorts of different angles right in front of me strengthens my base knowledge of human anatomy and certainly benefits me as a student interested in a surgical career.” 

The program’s multidisciplinary Visualization Hub team is producing stunning and accurate augmented and virtual reality images for health care. This program uses highly advanced technologies to ensure that simulation is adopted and that an outcomes-based approach to training is accomplished.

According to Paul Dye, manager of educational technology and design for iEXCEL, the team collaborates with subject matter experts from academic, business and government entities, including faculty and clinicians, to improve outcomes in medical fields and beyond through the creation of unique educational experiences using state-of-the-art technologies.

“Our goal is to facilitate the rapid transfer of knowledge, improve understanding and retention rates, and expand the practice of professional skills and clinical procedures, including emergency response and disaster preparedness, through high fidelity visualization and simulation,” Dye said.

Alex Farrell, a second-year medical student from Canton, Michigan, who is hoping to be a surgeon after graduation, pointed to the safety provided by working with Visualization Hub technology.

“The Visualization Hub technology simulates the operating room very well, mimicking the technology seen in practice,” Farrell said. “It allows for a safe environment to practice skills relevant to clinical interactions.”

A recent $2.5 million gift from a donor who wished to remain anonymous is being utilized to retain and expand staff at the Visualization Hub and expand their skill sets. In addition, this gift will provide funding for ongoing educational opportunities for the visualization staff to ensure they remain at the forefront of visualization content development.

Tran, who served as an intern for iEXCEL for a year while working toward her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, believes the Visualization Hub’s technology is as close to reality as can be achieved by the best technology. She said the iEXCEL Visualization Hub team does an outstanding job of working with faculty to make sure animations are as realistic and medically accurate as possible. Tran also pointed out that the team does its best to program the technology to be user-friendly for students. 

iExcel hosts a group of government officials and major health care executives from Japan who want to establish a series of simulation centers throughout their country. The group toured the Visualization Hub, a Sim truck, the Davis Global Center for Health Security and the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on Wednesday, November 13, 2019.

Most importantly, technology at the Visualization Hub allows students to develop their skills and build their confidence in a risk-free environment.

“I feel as though I am better prepared to work with patients because of my experiences at the Visualization Hub,” Tran said. “The technology bridges the gap between textbooks, classes and interacting with real patients. It helps us solidify our medical knowledge, sharpen our skills, and ultimately, better prepare us for treating real patients.

“As a whole, iEXCEL is an amazing place. I am truly lucky as a medical student to have this type of institution in Nebraska.”

Drawing a Line in the Sand

Noble Effort Underway to Turn the Tide on Pancreatic Cancer

By Connie White 

Pancreatic cancer is an insidious and lethal foe. Often, the disease remains undetected until its advanced stages, leaving patients with sometimes only months to live after diagnosis.

Statistics tell the story. Pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of about 10%. The disease kills 200 Nebraskans annually. Left behind are heartbroken children, wives, husbands and friends.

But now, surviving family members have banded together in Nebraska to launch a noble effort to turn the tide on one of the most lethal forms of cancer. The philanthropic community, together with state leaders, has committed funding to find a cure for pancreatic cancer.

“Families who lost people came together, and they drew a line in the sand. They basically said, ‘Enough,’” said Sunil Hingorani, M.D., Ph.D., who was recruited to Omaha to serve as the first director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine.

Old photo of Dr. Hingorani's Parents
Sunil Hingorani’s parents Kamla and Ram Hingorani. Ram Hingorani was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998.

The cause is also personal for Hingorani. His father, Ram Hingorani, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998. At the time, Sunil Hingorani was a clinical fellow in gastrointestinal oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He took a leave of absence to go home and care for his father, who died a few months later.

“I lost my father, the kindest, wisest man I have ever known,” Hingorani said. “My mother lost the love of  her life.”

The experience drove him to pursue pancreatic cancer research.

“Every patient I take care of is like taking care of my father all over again,” he said. “This is personal. And you know what, it’s also about settling a score.”

Before coming to Nebraska in May 2022, Hingorani was a professor and endowed research chair at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. He came to the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center with the stated goal of finding a cure for pancreatic cancer within the next decade.

Hingorani has found allies in Nebraska and beyond. The Nebraska Legislature has allocated $15 million in one-time funding to be matched by $15 million in philanthropic support. UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., who also lost his father to pancreatic cancer, has declared “a state of open warfare” on the disease.

Along with state funding and other key philanthropic gifts, the Berenberg Invitational charity golf event in New York has also raised funds for the effort. Over two years, the event has brought in $1.45 million and attracted the participation and support of golf legend Gary Player, who lost his wife to pancreatic cancer.

During a visit to UNMC last year, Player said, “We need as many people to stand up and do as much as they can to fight this dreaded disease, cancer.”

Hingorani is the inaugural recipient of the Nancy Armitage Pancreas Cancer Clinical Research Presidential Chair. The presidential chair was established in memory of Nancy Armitage, a nurse who worked at University Hospital and the wife of renowned oncologist James Armitage, M.D., a professor of oncology/hematology at UNMC. Nancy Armitage died of pancreatic cancer in 2017.

“Her loved ones, and others who had also lost loved ones to this disease, came together to provide the funding for this chair,” Hingorani said. “They were all trying to derive meaning from loss — something I understand because I am, too.”

The center’s goals are twofold: to detect pancreatic cancer earlier and to develop new strategies to slow or stop the disease.

Hingorani came to Nebraska with stellar credentials as an internationally recognized pancreatic cancer researcher. He helped develop mouse models that mimic human pancreatic cancer and came up with a diagnosis of the main obstacle to treating the disease.

Unlike other cancers, pancreatic cancer tumors can survive with little blood supply, so chemotherapy, which is delivered through the circulatory system, “never gets into the tumor in sufficient concentrations,” he said. Tumors also are likely to metastasize to other locations in the body.

Hingorani said the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center is the ideal place to fight pancreatic cancer. The center is designed to put researchers and clinicians in close proximity so they can talk daily, sometimes multiple times a day, about the real problems facing patients.

That spirit of collaboration extends to real-time multidisciplinary patient conferences, during which oncologists, surgeons, pathologists, radiologists, researchers and others meet to discuss patient cases. The goal is to foster rigorous debate about the best treatment plans, Hingorani said.

“What happens when you’re having that conversation in real time, knowing that you then have to deliver a comprehensive treatment plan to the patient waiting down the hall,” he said, “is that everyone is fully invested.”

Hingorani said the loss of his father has left him with a level of fearlessness when talking about pancreatic cancer. He praised Nebraska leaders and the philanthropic community for coming together to support this work.

“This is an extraordinary level of commitment to a disease that’s been crying out for this kind of concerted effort for five decades,” he said.

This article includes material from the spring 2023 issue of UNMC Connect.

Like Mother, Like Son

“Mom was a kindhearted soul. She would be more than happy to have what she worked for go to help people in the (nursing) profession.”

Son Honors His Mother With a Gift to Help Others

By Susan Houston Klaus

The first things you learn about Leland Essary are that he’s exceptionally good humored, a great storyteller — and proud of his mother’s accomplishments.

Burnett Society member Leland and his mother, Theta Cole Bullington, shared a love of adventure and of helping others. Theta rose in her profession to be a respected leader in public health nursing; Leland enjoyed a decades-long career in teaching. Along the way, the mother and son didn’t hesitate to lend a hand to people in need.

Born in Stockville, Nebraska, Theta had her sights set on becoming a nurse.

“Her parents were not wealthy people,” Leland said. “When Mom graduated from high school, she went to teach to make money [to be able to go to the university and study nursing]. Her overall goal was not to be a teacher; her overall goal was to be a nurse. It meant a lot to her.”

In 1938, at age 29, Theta earned her general nursing degree. The next year, she received her Bachelor of Nursing degree from what is now the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Theta was a nurse in Pennsylvania during World War II. Later, she moved to Oklahoma, where she worked with the Native American community and then went on to serve in public health nursing in Nevada and as director of public health nursing for Santa Cruz County, California.

A young Leland and his mom returned to Nebraska in the late 1950s, where she renewed her teaching certification, serving in one-room schools. Later, she worked in nursing for the educational service units in North Platte and Kearney.

Theta was always ready to help others. Leland remembers her writing a check to a friend of his and saying, “Pay me back when you can.”

Neighbors in rural Nebraska, with health care many miles away, would ask for her help because they knew she was an RN.

From his mother, Leland learned the value of hard work and pitching in where it was needed.

He worked cattle on his stepdad’s 5,700-acre Sandhills ranch from the time he was 11.

“You fix fences, you put up hay for the winter, you fix wells, herd cattle, chase cattle,” Leland said. “I bet I was on a horse five out of the seven days in a week.”

Leland graduated from McPherson County High School and Kearney State College. Like his mother, he became a teacher.

Leland had taught in Grand Island for eight years when he and three other teachers who enjoyed off-roading were lured by Arizona’s warm climate and plenty of places to ride off-road. Leland moved to Phoenix and joined Washington Elementary School, teaching sixth-grade math and some English.

For Leland, teaching turned out to be a lifelong vocation.

“In 30 years, I never had a class of kids that I just didn’t absolutely love,” he said.

Like his mother, Leland hasn’t hesitated to go the extra mile. A kind gesture nearly 25 years ago turned into a lasting friendship.

In 1999, he met up with a tour group of Amish people whose driver had had a health emergency. Leland volunteered to take them around southwest Colorado. He refused to accept any payment, so one member of the group invited him to visit them in Indiana.

He took them at their word. After he retired, he drove to Indiana, planning to stay a few days and return home. Leland ended up staying in the community for more than three months. He found himself again in the classroom, teaching math and English in a one-room school — the same kind of school at which his mother had taught when she returned to Nebraska.

Theta joined her son in Arizona after retiring in the late 1970s. She loved to travel and enjoyed her years in the Phoenix area.

Recently, Leland said, he had been thinking about how he could honor his mother, who died in 1995, and her career in nursing through his estate. He thought about the recognition Theta received in 1983 from the UNMC Alumni Association, which presented her with its inaugural Distinguished Alumnus Award.

It meant everything to her, Leland said.

“She was so honored by it,” he said, “I got to thinking, what could I do?”

Theta’s enthusiasm for her alma mater helped Leland decide on the perfect gift in her honor: the Theta C. Bullington College of Nursing Scholarship Fund.

It seemed an appropriate tribute to someone “who just lived the nursing profession” and knew it could be difficult for some to afford an education, Leland said.

The endowed gift, which was established as a bequest, will provide a lasting legacy for his mother for decades to come.

“Mom was a kindhearted soul,” Leland said. “She would be more than happy to have what she worked for go to help people in the profession.”

Theta Cole Bullington received the inaugural Distinguished Alumnus Award from UNMC in 1983.

UNMC Giving Day succeeds because of big-hearted donors like Jack

By Connie White

Jack Henry of Omaha knows firsthand what it’s like to lose a loved one to a life-threatening illness. His 10-year-old sister died from a brain tumor in March 1986.

So it was tough to learn in 2021 that his mother, Linda Henry of Logan, Iowa, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, considered to be one of the world’s most lethal cancers. Linda is being treated at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine.

In gratitude for her care, Jack decided to give back as part of the first-ever UNMC Giving Day— For the Greater Good. The March 30-31 event raised $278,229 from 1,542 supporters. The giving event, organized by the University of Nebraska Foundation, lasted 1,869 minutes in honor of UNMC’s founding in 1869.

The inaugural UNMC Giving Day supported more than 70 causes, including student scholarships, UNMC’s colleges and student organizations and Nebraska Medicine, UNMC’s primary clinical partner.  

Jack’s Deconstruct Cancer Challenge was established using personal funds and with financial support from the owners of the company Jack works for, Johnson Deconstruct of Omaha. His efforts resulted in a total of 30 gifts, raising $4,450 for the Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence, which seeks to transform the early detection, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

“I feel so lucky having this state-of-the-art medical facility right next door,” Jack said. “It’s such a noble effort, and it’s right here in Nebraska.”

Linda, 72, said she’s proud of her son for organizing the fundraiser and is grateful for the care she’s received at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. “It has meant the world to me. I’ve got a lot to live for.”

She recalls learning she had pancreatic cancer in the emergency room. “I thought there was no hope for anything. I didn’t think anyone got over pancreatic cancer.”

Linda said she was fortunate her pancreatic cancer was detected early, and after six months of chemotherapy and Whipple surgery to remove part of her pancreas, she’s looking to the future with optimism. She treasures time with her three children and five grandchildren and has a message for others with pancreatic cancer.

“There is hope.”

$20 million gift creates scholarships for UNMC pharmacy students

The Only in Nebraska campaign is about investing in University of Nebraska students.

It’s also about the giving spirit of people like Joe and Millie Williams.

Alumnus Joe Williams, who died in 2021, left a $20 million estate gift to the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy. Because of this extraordinary gift, pharmacy students will begin receiving Williams Scholarships next fall, in amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000.

The Williams Scholarships will allow students to lessen their debt and will allow UNMC to compete for some of the nation’s top students. “We want to give at least some dollars to just about every student that applies,” said Keith Olsen, Pharm.D., Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of the College of Pharmacy.

Joseph “Joe” D. Williams worked in his grandfather’s Pawnee City, Nebraska, pharmacy as a kid. He served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from the College of Pharmacy in 1950. As chair and CEO of Warner-Lambert, he helped to drive and deliver new drug therapies and products from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Williams was one of the UNMC College of Pharmacy’s greatest success stories, and, with his wife, Millie, one of its most steadfast supporters.

His estate gift allows the College of Pharmacy to endow its deanship; to endow a student scholarship fund and funds for faculty support which include available matching dollars to spur even more giving from the college’s supporters; to further develop the UNMC Center for Drug Discovery; and to provide unrestricted dollars for the college to use to bring to life its strategic initiatives.

“It allows the college to truly change its trajectory,” Olsen said when the gift was announced in December.

UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., called Williams’ life “a great American story and a true ‘Only in Nebraska’ story,” a reference to the University of Nebraska Foundation’s historic campaign, Only in Nebraska: A Campaign for Our University’s Future. The campaign’s goal is to raise $3 billion from 150,000 unique benefactors to support the University of Nebraska.

“We are eternally grateful to Joe and Millie for their friendship and their incredible support over the years. For all his success, Joe never forgot where it all began,” Gold said. “I am excited to see what further great American stories our College of Pharmacy will be able to write in the years to come, thanks to the enduring investment in the future made by Joe and his family.”