$5M Donation From Grateful Patient Helps VCU Health Expand PF Care

Marisa Wexler MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler MS |

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VCU Health, Virginia Commonwealth University

Thanks to a $5 million donation from a grateful patient, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Health is expanding its programs to treat those with lung diseases like pulmonary fibrosis (PF).

After his escape from Yugoslavia in the 1950s, Bill Belanich came to the U.S., where he took a job installing asbestos in commercial and industrial sites. He went on to work at Waco, Inc., in Virginia, removing toxic building material from offices, hospitals, schools, and industrial sites. Eventually, Belanich worked his way up from a journeyman to become the president of the company.

Decades of asbestos exposure, however, ended up damaging his lungs, and in 2017, he was diagnosed with PF, a lung disorder that leads to the formation of scar tissue (fibrosis) in the lungs.

In the four years since his diagnosis, Belanich has been working with Alpha “Berry” Fowler, MD, a pulmonary disease and critical care medicine doctor at VCU Health, to care for his disease. He had previously been treated at VCU Health for other conditions, including sciatica and heart problems.

“In Richmond, VCU is blessed with many of the best doctors,” Belanich said in a press release.

Today, the 80-year-old walks four miles daily and has continued to travel.

“I trust Dr. Fowler, and he’s helped me keep some of my freedom to be active,” Belanich said in a Medical College of Virginia Foundation news story.

In gratitude for the care he has received, Belanich donated $5 million to VCU health last year for its lung diseases programs.

“Mr. Belanich’s gift will have an enormous impact on the health of hundreds, maybe thousands of individuals,” said Fowler.

“His gift will enable us to further grow the influence of VCU Health’s division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine throughout Central Virginia, as we care for some of the sickest individuals in the state,” Fowler said.

Belanich’s gift will support specialty care for people with many different types of lung disorders, including interstitial lung diseases (ILDs), pulmonary hypertension (PH), cystic fibrosis (CF), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer.

With this donation, VCU Health will be initiating new programs to support better care for these patients. The academic medical center also will expand its existing care programs, such as the Interstitial Lung Disease Clinic, which provides care for people with ILDs, a group of conditions characterized by lung fibrosis, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).

“At VCU Health, we advance cutting edge clinical care, complete trials of new therapies to treat severe lung disease, and help educate our physicians who will provide outstanding care for patients and families in Richmond and beyond,” said Patricia Sime, MD, chair of the department of internal medicine at VCU Health.

“Support from generous donors like Mr. Belanich and others will help us save lives and develop the research needed to find cures,” Sime said.

The donation also will support the recruitment of new healthcare professionals at VCU Health, as well as provide education and research for people who care for lung disease patients. In addition, the donation will establish an endowment fund — to be named the William Belanich Endowment Fund — at the VCU School of Medicine.

“We will be able to provide our medical students, medical residents and our fellowship trainees with an incredible array of educational opportunities,” Fowler said. “These people are the future of medicine, and will be able to bring the latest and greatest care to patients with adult CF, pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung diseases and pulmonary fibrosis.”