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Soon after President Trump issued last month's executive orders on immigration — including his travel ban — several Harvard Medical School classmates were sharing their concerns on Facebook.
One student said he was ashamed that the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was planning its usual fundraiser at the Mar-a-Lago club in southern Florida, the resort Trump calls his "winter White House."
The students started to discuss what they could do, says M.D.-Ph.D. candidate George Karandinos, and within hours, they fired off a respectful but forceful email to Dr. Laurie Glimcher, the president of Dana-Farber, asking that the traditional winter gala be relocated.
They called on the leading cancer institute to "take a strong stand for the health and wellbeing of all patients, no matter their religion or nation of origin." And they argued that the executive order contradicted the institute's core values — including diversity, compassion and respect.
They asked for a response within a day. When one didn't come, they launched a petition that has since gathered more than 2,500 signatures.
Among Dana-Farber patients who signed was Dr. Alan Guttmacher, a Vermont physician. He says that just walking through the institute's doors gives him the feeling "that I'm going to be cared for in every sense of being cared for," medically and emotionally.
If Dana-Farber continues to use Mar-a-Lago and thus support a Trump enterprise, he said in a phone interview, "I won't feel the same level of feeling at home, of being taken care of, when I walk through those doors. I suspect that's true for many other patients as well."
On Jan. 31, Dr. Glimcher responded with an announcement saying that the institute's leadership shared the students' concern about the executive order's effects on staff and patients.
But, it added:
That said, the forthcoming fundraiser in Palm Beach is planned many months in advance, and raises critical funds to support this lifesaving work. 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.
Other organizations find themselves in a similar position this year and have made a similar decision.
Those organizations include the Red Cross, which held a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser on Jan. 31, and the Cleveland Clinic. The Mar-a-Lago reportedly charges up to $150,000 to host Dana-Farber's dinner-and-dance gala.
The money argument didn't satisfy the medical students. "I don't think that money right now is the primary issue," said opposition organizer Karandinos. "I think this is a question of showing moral leadership as an institution whose core mission is being threatened by the administration's actions."
To ramp up the pressure on Dana-Farber, the medical students announced earlier this week that they would hold a rally Saturday at Harvard Medical School in the Longwood Medical area of Boston, about a 1,000 feet from Dana-Farber.
"We have no desire whatsoever to disrupt patient care or to inconvenience patients, which is a complete priority," Karandinos said. "But we believe it's close enough to send a message."
On Friday, Glimcher responded again in writing, this time saying that holding the gala at Mar-a-Lago had never been meant as any type of political statement or endorsement. But that canceling it now would also be seen as a political statement.
"Our goal," she writes, "is to stay out of politics." She adds: "Because this event has become such a lightning rod for some, in the future we will avoid controversial venues that may distract from our focus on cancer care and research."
Karandinos says he understands Dana-Farber's desire to stay out of politics, but that may not be possible these days.
"We're seeing it all the time now," he said. "I think corporations and institutions and academic centers are being forced to clarify publicly what their values are, and what kind of actions are in line with those values, and what may be threatening those values. And this is a moment in American politics that is begging us to ask those questions and to respond to the answers."
Glimcher's response seems to indicate that though Dana-Farber will not cancel or relocate this year's gala, it will not go back to Mar-a-Lago after this year.
That's good enough for Guttmacher.
"My reaction is that it is unwise to let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said in an email. "While I would have preferred a slightly different statement, assuming the slightly vague penultimate paragraph means no future use of Mar-a-Lago or other Trump properties, this seems like a reasonable resolution."
But it's not good enough for the Harvard medical students, who were still planning to rally on Saturday. They say in a statement that they were pleased by the promise to avoid controversial venues, but disappointed the Dana-Farber statement did not acknowledge the "moral and ethical issues at stake."
"We believe the issues at stake far surpass this one event," they write, "and will work continually to foster a spirit of political awareness and public engagement among the medical community at Harvard and beyond."
The institute's announcement may not be enough for some Dana-Farber faculty, either. A letter asking for the fundraiser to be relocated or cancelled collected over 200 faculty signatures before it was given to the Dana-Farber administration earlier this week, faculty members say.
Dr. Julie-Aurore Losman, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a leukemia expert at Dana-Farber, says she signed the letter and the student petition out of concern for the chilling effect Trump’s executive order may have on cancer research.
“Dana-Farber is a premier academic institution because we actively recruit the best and brightest from all around the world,” she says. “It is underappreciated just how much Dana-Farber benefits once they return home by creating a network of collaborations around the world.
“This is an amazing place to work; there are amazing people here, and we are well supported by the institution,” she adds “But this is an existential threat to the way we do science.”
Losman specifically cites how the study of health care disparities in cancer may be affected by Trump's travel ban, even if it does not stay enforced. Understanding why Chinese or Syrian people, for example, have different patterns of cancer can only be researched with large international collaborations.
“It is an impossible question to tackle unless you have an open collaboration,” Losman says. “Email is great; Skype is great. But you need to be able to meet in person, travel to one another’s labs.
“How much damage has the executive order done? Science is a marathon," she says. "We won’t know the answer to that for a long time.”
With additional reporting from Dr. David Scales.
This story aired on February 10, 2017.
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