In her 25 years of volunteering in the cancer clinic, Ruth Weil has had lots of time to get to know some very special physicians: the surgical oncology fellows who spend two years at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute for advanced training. Perhaps no one appreciates these brilliant young doctors better than Ruth, who is also a long-time Institute benefactor.
“These doctors are our future,” she says. “They are already board certified surgeons and can go anywhere. But they come here to learn advanced surgical oncology and do research. I see them interact with their patients all the time, and they are wonderful.”
Ruth’s appreciation of the renowned Surgical Oncology Fellowship Program has inspired her to make a gift of $1.5 million to endow the Ruth and Martin H. Weil fellow. “We are incredibly proud of the program and are so grateful to Ruth and all our generous donors who make this important part of our mission possible. The fellowship program is one of the Institute’s highest priorities,” says Anton J. Bilchik, MD, PhD, chief of the gastrointestinal research program. “Support for the fellowship program rests entirely on private philanthropy. I can’t think of any better investment to ensure that we continue to cure more cases of cancer.”
In 2016, the first recipient of gift was Dr. Trevan Fischer, who has since graduated the program and was asked to remain as faculty. He now is the Assistant Program Director for the Complex General Surgical Oncology Fellowship program. “Ruth is a very special woman who has given time and money to cancer research and fellowship education. I was honored to be the “Ruthy fellow” says Dr. Fischer. Dr. Amanda Graff-Baker was the second honoree and will graduated the program in July of 2018.
Ruth is only too familiar with the toll exacted by cancer. Her husband, her daughter and a brother all passed away from cancer, and Ruth was treated for breast cancer at Saint John’s Health Center in 2001. She describes the feeling she gets while working at the John Wayne Cancer Center, where she greets and supports patients, as “a volunteer high.” Recently while helping in the clinic, a woman came running up to her shouting “Ruthie, Ruthie!” “She hugged me and said, ‘Thank you, thank you!’ I suddenly remembered that this woman had surgery recently,” Ruth explains. “She didn’t want to have the surgery, so the doctors sent me in to talk to her and I convinced her to have it. She told me, ‘You saved my life.’ That’s why I volunteer.” Having been a patient and caregiver, Ruth is attuned to the struggles families endure. “I tell patients the mind is an incredible tool. You’ve got to use it to persevere,” she says.
Ruth grew up in a small mining town in Pennsylvania and majored in English literature and science at Penn State University. She moved to Los Angeles as an adult and ran the business management department at Weil & Co, a CPA firm. Besides volunteering at the cancer clinic, Ruth knits caps and booties for newborns at Saint John’s and is a past president of the Saint John’s Cancer Institute Auxiliary. She also hosts the annual fellowship graduation ceremony at her home each spring. Ruth’s devotion and support made her a natural selection for the first-ever Dr. Donald L. Morton Legend Award, which recognizes an individual who has made a significant impact in support of the Institute.
“Ruth’s dedication to the Institute has long inspired us,” says Patrick Wayne, chairman of the Institute board of directors. “Her generosity and warm spirit lifts us up and motivates us to keep up the fight against cancer.” The award was presented to Ruth at the annual Saint John’s Cancer Institute Auxiliary Odyssey Ball in 2015. “Donald Morton was a world renowned doctor who was known for founding the fellowship program,” Ruth says. “I want to carry this on. The fellows are our future. They’re going to go out and discover and teach. This is a program people need to step up and support.”