published Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Skillern legacy will live on at Memorial Hospital

Rendering of the Rees Skillern Cancer Institute at Memorial Hospital.
Rendering of the Rees Skillern Cancer Institute at Memorial Hospital.

Nearly two years after Fredrick Rees Skillern Jr. lost his battle with cancer, his parents are still fighting to keep others in the Hamilton County area from having to bury their loved ones.

In 2004, Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern and his wife, Bettye, learned that their adult son, Rees, had a brain tumor.

The Soddy-Daisy family entered a time of chemotherapy, hospitalizations, travel and surgeries. The eight-year story ended with a funeral -- and two grieving parents.

But a new chapter started Friday, when the Skillerns donated $3 million -- largely from Rees' estate -- to Memorial Health Care System to help build a cancer institute.

The donation was what Rees wanted, Skillern said Wednesday. Rees and his parents traveled all over the state to battle his cancer, and much of his time was spent at Memorial.

It was Rees' wish to bring comfort to those fighting cancer -- and to give better tools to the doctors, nurses and caregivers supporting them, Skillern said.

"The people that cleaned his room, the people who cleaned him ... that brought him food, that nursed him and nurtured him. They were a great group, a great team. It left a wonderful impression on him and on us," Skillern said. "He spent 42 days in there and walked out on his own. They were so good to him, and we just want them to be good for more people."

Memorial announced Friday that the donation would create the Rees Skillern Cancer Institute, an umbrella that will tie together all of the hospital's cancer treatment programs.

Aside from a renovation to Memorial's existing cancer center, the money will fund a new cancer risk and survivor support program. The new center will expand Memorial's ability to identify cancer risks through genetic testing; develop programs for adult cancer survivors to cope with complications from chemotherapy; and will emphasize research and new clinical trials, according to a Memorial statement.

Had the cancer center been around when Rees was first diagnosed, his story might have been different -- but Skillern said Rees' situation still was unique.

After Rees' brain tumor was removed at Vanderbilt, the chemotherapy started -- first at Vanderbilt and then at Memorial. Things were looking up until 2010, when doctors discovered Rees had developed myelodysplasia -- a cancer that causes bone marrow to produce irregular blood cells. The disease preludes leukemia and it did in Rees' case.

After a stem cell transplant and a 42-day stay in Memorial, Rees was out of the hospital. And Skillern said he was doing well.

"He wasn't running a footrace, but he was up walking around and serving himself," Skillern said.

But then things took a turn for the worse. On Jan. 24, 2012, Rees died. He was 49.

Through the whole ordeal, Skillern said, traveling was one of the most difficult burdens to bear.

"Hopefully, this will enable someone else in our area so that they would not have to travel if they are in this situation," Skillern said.

James Hobson, Memorial's CEO, said in a statement Friday that the hospital is "at a crossroads of exciting new ways to improve cancer detection and treatment for everyone in the community." He said the new cancer institute would "create a legacy of advanced cancer care at Memorial."

"Expanding Memorial's multifaceted approach of oncology services would not be possible without the Skillerns' generosity and the many dedicated supporters of the Memorial Foundation," Hobson said.

The Rees Skillern Cancer Institute will house Memorial's Mary Ellen Locher Breast Center, the H. Clay Evans Johnson Radiation Center, the Schmissrauter Center for Cancer Support and other cancer treatment programs.

Getting ahead of any possible criticism, Skillern, a longtime county politician, said the donation was in his son's name and was a private, family decision.

The presentation of the donation at Memorial on Friday was by invitation only, and the media was not invited.

Even before Friday's announcement, Skillern and his wife were members of the hospital's Johnson Society, a group of residents and foundations that have individually donated more than $100,000 to the hospital over their lifetimes, according to the foundation's website.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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