Health foundations honoured for creating brighter futures - one breakthrough at a time

Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation among 12 UAlberta donors recognized with National Philanthropy Day awards

The lack of eye contact worried Leanne Bilodeau the most. It was 2010 and the Edmonton mom had recently given birth to a son, Jacques. Jacques's eldest brother had just been diagnosed with autism, putting Bilodeau on high alert for signs her newborn might be at risk. At four months old, Jacques made no eye contact while breastfeeding and wasn't cooing as much as his mom expected.

At the time, the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder were almost unheard of until a child reached four or five. However, Jacques and other Edmonton children were able to get help much sooner because the University of Alberta had become home to one of the world's top autism researchers - Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation Chair in Autism and Stollery Science Lab Distinguished Researcher with the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

Zwaigenbaum's work is one of dozens of health breakthroughs at the U of A, made possible by the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation. These two philanthropic pillars, through their communities of caring donors, have made gifts totalling $119 million to the university since 2005, including $84.4 million from the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and $34.2 million from the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation - almost entirely to women and children's health research.

The foundations were recognized Nov. 21 with a National Philanthropy Day award in Edmonton. They are two of 12 donors nominated by the U of A that were honoured.

"These foundations have made advancements in women and children's health that have undoubtedly saved lives and brought hope - not just in Alberta but around the world," says Sandra Davidge, executive director of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute at the U of A.

Davidge says the foundations have forged a "powerful partnership" that has improved the lifelong health of women and children, two groups that have been traditionally underserved by research.

The Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation has supported advancements such as breaking down the stigma of and improving treatments for menopause, work led by Sue Ross, the Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women's Health Research at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women.

Stollery gift brings the best care to parents and kids

The Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation wanted to bring hope to parents whose children had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder - news that is life-changing. The solution was to put Edmonton at the cutting edge of ASD research and clinical care, which meant recruiting an internationally renowned expert early in his or her career.

"Our donors know that research is our best shot at improving how we care for kids and their families - from backyards across Alberta and beyond." says Mike House, president and CEO of the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation, which is the primary funder of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

A gift by the foundation in 2006 allowed the U of A to hire Zwaigenbaum, who had already gained fame as the first researcher to determine specific behavioural signs of ASD in children as young as 12 months old.

In his infant assessment program at the U of A's Autism Research Centre, Zwaigenbaum taught Bilodeau how to give Jacques the extra attention he needed while playing and socializing. Zwaigenbaum then applied his research findings to inform the development of autism care standards, published October 2019 by the Canadian Paediatric Society for use by doctors across the country. His research has also helped determine how likely infants with a family history of ASD are to develop the condition - and how to intervene to ensure they thrive socially and emotionally. In 2018, Zwaigenbaum's research was recognized as part of a $5-million gift by the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation to establish the Stollery Science Lab. Zwaigenbaum was named one of seven Distinguished Researchers within the program.

A decade after working with Zwaigenbaum, Jacques has avoided an ASD diagnosis. Although Bilodeau cannot say for sure that the early intervention staved off the disorder, she is certain that her son is thriving because of the support he received.

She says Zwaigenbaum is more than a doctor - he is also a tireless advocate for improving the medical care and support services on which she and her family rely.

"I feel truly fortunate to know Dr. Zwaigenbaum," Bilodeau says. "He is kind and dedicated."

Royal Alex gift gives hope and courage to mature women

Across the street from Zwaigenbaum's clinic at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, women's health researcher Ross has been making advances for almost a decade on a medical condition that has had its own share of stigma and misunderstanding: menopause. As Canada's population ages, there is an urgent need for better treatments of symptoms caused by age-related conditions that affect women.

"Investing in women's health creates a brighter future for all," says Andrew Otway, president and CEO of the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation. "When women thrive, their families and communities also thrive."

A gift from the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation in 2012 allowed Ross to be hired as the Cavarzan Chair in Mature Women's Health Research at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women.

Ross assesses new treatments and empowers women to take control of their health by building support networks. Her work has dramatically improved the lives of women and helped to break down the stigma associated with menopause and other conditions that affect mature women.

In 2016, Ross participated in community workshops in Maskwacis, a community south of Edmonton that includes four First Nations. With Ross's expertise, workshop participants developed culturally appropriate pamphlets on menopause for spouses and families. Ross and the women obtained a $150,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and, working with elders, have expanded their work to study other ways to support Indigenous women as they age.

"They brought their culture, wisdom and life experiences to the project," says Ross. "They knew they wanted to increase community understanding about menopause, not to try to 'cure' it."

The 21st annual National Philanthropy Day awards are presented by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Edmonton & Area on Nov. 21. This year, they honour 125 local philanthropists for their outstanding commitment to non-profit organizations in the community. Honourees nominated by the U of A are:

  • Elsie Kawulychand Jeanette Bayduza,'64 MD, '60 BSc, for preserving Ukrainian culture and enhancing Ukrainian studies internationally by establishing an endowment for student awards (Kawulych) and post-doctoral fellowships and scholarships (Bayduza).
  • Alice Kulak, '59 BA, for allowing students of economics and history and classics to pursue their passion by establishing scholarships in the Faculty of Arts.
  • Clara Langen, 10, and her sister Mary, 8, for bringing hope to children with heart conditions and their families by supporting pediatric research, in honour of their brother, Quinlan, who died of a heart defect as a baby.
  • Hazel Magnussen, '64 Dip(Nu), '72 BScN, for ensuring that advances in patient care are accessible to all by establishing a free lecture, and for improving care in nursing homes by supporting the Translating Research in Elder Care program.
  • Pembina Pipeline Corporation and energy services supplier Tenaris for breaking down barriers for Indigenous youth, young women and others to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math by supporting the Faculty of Engineering's DiscoverE summer science camps.
  • Rogers Communications Inc. for inspiring more than 300 young women to pursue science careers through the support of the U of A's Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology (WISEST) program.
  • The U of A's nursing class of 1959 for reducing barriers for close to 20 nursing students by establishing undergraduate and graduate awards.
  • The University Hospital Foundation for bringing hope and compassion to the care of patients of all ages through its generous support of students and research.