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A gift that keeps on giving

Jean McGough created an endowed chair in women’s health to honor her mother — and to help future generations

Jean McGough knows firsthand about ovarian cancer — how it has the power to slowly rob a woman of her energy, her health, and eventually, her life. In 1993 she sat by her mother’s side in her Roseville home, caring for her as she wrestled the disease through the final three months of her life. It was a life-changing experience, says McGough, and it left her with questions about her own health. What were her chances of contracting ovarian cancer? she wondered. Is it something that runs in families? But, like most of us, she put those uncomfortable questions aside. Then, in the summer of 2002, the issue struck home for her and for millions of other women across the country.

That July, the National Institutes of Health revealed that it was halting the use of estrogen and progestin hormone replacement therapy (marketed under the brand name Prempro) in its massive 15-year study on postmenopausal women. The reason: The study results were showing unacceptable risks of breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke associated with taking the hormone drug combo. As a result, 16,000 women received a letter advising them to stop taking Prempro.

The news quickly hit papers and TV screens across the country, and McGough — along with an entire generation of women — started paying attention and asking questions. Soon after, the University of Minnesota Medical School held a community education program to address the issues raised by the federal study. McGough signed up for the event at the invitation of Cathy Brennan, president of the former Women’s Health Fund, and found herself among an audience of more than 600 women.

Later, another friend — Patty Arnold, chief financial officer for University of Minnesota Physicians — introduced her to Linda Carson, M.D., head of the Medical School’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health. The two women hit it off; McGough had at last found a caring expert she could trust — someone who could advise her on her personal health risks.

Eventually, McGough’s mind turned back to her mother, who had struggled so fiercely with ovarian cancer. Eleanor Forliti was born of German parents, married an Italian immigrant, and spent her years in St. Paul and Roseville keeping a stable home for her husband and three children.

“She mastered the art of Italian cooking,” remembers McGough, “and her favorite times were when the children and grandchildren stopped by for a visit. They never left without being fed.” McGough says her mother showed her love through cooking and taught the grandchildren how to make the foods they so loved. “This is the legacy she left for all of us.”

With such vibrant memories in mind, McGough decided to sit down with her husband, Tom, to talk about ways to honor her mother’s life — and to make a difference in the lives of others who face the risk of ovarian cancer and other diseases prevalent in women.

After consulting at length with Carson, the two finally decided to pledge $2 million to establish the Jean McGough and Eleanor Forliti Endowed Chair in Women’s Health, with Carson as its first chairholder.

“We’re always trying to find ways to help,” says Jean McGough. “It seems that the University is always getting its funds cut by the state legislature, so this seemed like the best way to help the Medical School continue its important research on these diseases.”

As it turns out, the gift is the largest private donation ever received by the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health.

“I can’t emphasize enough how valuable this gift is to our department,” says Carson. “It will provide resources that can help us expand in many important areas, from start-up research funds to clinical trials to recruiting a division director for gynecological oncology.”

Having money available to start innovative research projects is especially valuable, explains Carson. “In order for our faculty to receive large federal grants through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they need start-up funds so they can get some preliminary results.” Once faculty members demonstrate that their research project is worthy, they can more effectively compete for NIH grants.

For private donors, the benefit to funding such innovative research is huge: In many cases, a relatively small contribution can be leveraged to attract federal grants that are many times the original investment. In the end, countless patients could benefit from the results. Carson says that faculty members in her department are currently working on a number of such promising research projects, including a clinical trial of compounds that may be useful in treating ovarian cancer; a study that looks at altering enzymes associated with the disease; and the value of using complementary and alternative medicine techniques to stimulate the immune systems of ovarian cancer patients.

The Jean McGough and Eleanor Forliti Endowed Chair joins the Shirley A. Sparboe Endowed Chair in Women’s Cancer Research as another beacon to attract renowned faculty members to the department and its important work. And all of this came out of a desire to honor a much-loved and often-remembered mother. “I think she would be proud,” says McGough.

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