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A kind heart

Tony Garofalo

In memory of their son, couple funds endowed chair in preventive cardiology

It was a Monday morning in 1998 when Donald and Patricia Garofalo got the phone call that turned their lives upside down. Their son Tony had had a heart attack at work. They rushed to the hospital, only to return to their home less than two hours later. Tony—just 28 years old—had passed away.

“It was very traumatic for our family,” Don says. “We were in a state of shock and disbelief. This was a kid who ran track, was a near-vegetarian, and was not overweight.”

Doctors discovered that Tony had major blockage on one side of his heart. Though Tony had seen his doctor because he felt light-headed and generally not quite right, his electrocardiogram produced normal results, and the blockage went undetected.

In the midst of the Garofalos’ devastation, other friends and family members were telling them to get checked out. “We were totally baffled,” Don says. “We didn’t know what that meant or what to do.”

A friend referred the Garofalos to the University of Minnesota, where they found trust and comfort in cardiologist Leslie Miller, M.D. At the time, the University was in the early phases of establishing a center focused on cardiovascular disease prevention—just what the Garofalos were looking for.

So with their doctor’s guidance, the family underwent a series of screening tests. Because Don, Pat, and their two other children checked out fine and there was no history of heart trouble on either side of the family, doctors concluded that Tony’s heart problem was an anomaly.

In the decade since, the Garofalos have continued their involvement with cardiology at the University. They’ve watched as the fledgling prevention program has grown into the Rasmussen Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, which now offers the nation’s most comprehensive assessment to identify early cardiovascular abnormalities.

This year the Garofalos committed $2 million to establish the Donald and Patricia Garofalo Chair in Preventive Cardiology to further advance knowledge in the field. They’ve also funded the Anthony Garofalo Fellowship in Preventive Cardiology as well as undergraduate scholarships in Tony’s name.

“We always were a giving family, but our son’s death accelerated our giving,” Pat says. “Tony was a very giving, kind person.

“When you are going through a hideous time in your life, like losing a child, you need a focus,” she adds. “You really want to make a difference for someone.”

Daniel Duprez, M.D., Ph.D. (right), holds the endowed chair in preventive cardiology that Don Garofalo (left) and his wife, Pat, established in their son’s memory.

Intervening early

Professor of medicine Daniel Duprez, M.D., Ph.D.—the first holder of the Garofalo endowed chair—says the Garofalos’ support inspires his work. “I am very grateful,” says Duprez. “This is one of the biggest honors I could receive.”

As director of research at the Rasmussen Center, Duprez works to identify the mechanisms of cardiovascular disease and to detect disease early—before symptoms appear and before the disease results in heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or kidney failure.

“I work in a hospital, but the major part of my research is trying to find ways to keep people out of the hospital,” he says.

Duprez recently led a study, published in the August 28 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, showing that treating people who have early cardiovascular abnormalities—but no symptoms of disease—can slow disease progression and even reverse damage to the heart and blood vessels.

“Dr. Duprez is the consummate clinician-scientist. He is compassionate, delivers outstanding care, and has contributed significantly to preventive cardiovascular disease knowledge,” says Daniel Garry, M.D., Ph.D., director of the cardiology division of the Department of Medicine. “He represents the future of cardiovascular medicine, and his contributions are recognized in the awarding of this endowed chair.”

An important investment

Garry, who also directs the University’s Lillehei Heart Institute and holds the St. Jude Medical Cardiovascular Chair in Biomedical Engineering, is revitalizing cardiology research in the Medical School. Researchers are attacking cardiovascular disease from several angles, using cell-based therapies, genomics, and the body’s own signaling mechanisms to treat disease, to detect problems earlier, and ultimately to prevent heart damage from occurring in the first place.

“Preventive medicine and preventive cardiology are really at the forefront of medicine,” Garry says.

That’s why the Garofalos’ support is so vital to the University. “Philanthropic leaders like the Garofalos are absolutely essential for us to grow and achieve excellence in preventive cardiology—and for us to have an impact on a large number of patients,” Garry says.

The Garofalos want to do whatever they can to help. “If our son had had the benefit of a focus on prevention, simple heart surgery could have saved his life,” Don says.

Ultimately, the Garofalos hope their gifts to heart research at the University will lead to new knowledge about ways to prevent cardiovascular disease—and keep others from having to go through the pain of losing a loved one, especially a child.

“If this can help save just one life, it is all worth it,” Don says.

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