NEW YORK — When the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention opens its doors to the community of East Harlem today, the designer whose name is on the door will have realized an achievement that surpasses any of the notable campaigns he has spearheaded in the fight against cancer for 15 years.
More than two years after the Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. pledged a $5 million leadership grant to support the development of a center that would meet the needs of a community disproportionately affected by cancer, Lauren saw the completed product on Thursday afternoon, arriving with his family to unveil the center at the corner of East 124th Street and Madison Avenue.
"It was an interesting thing to say, ‘I’m going to come here,’ and not know what to expect," Lauren said. "All of a sudden, to come here and see this building, I said, ‘This is probably the best thing you will ever have done in your life.’"
The 9,000-square-foot Ralph Lauren Center was built and conceived through an unusual partnership between one of the leading authorities on the interrelationships between race, poverty and cancer; a community teaching hospital with limited resources and a fashion designer who made a commitment to supporting cancer treatment initiatives after losing a close friend, the journalist Nina Hyde, to cancer.
With a staff of 23 oncologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, surgeons, a social worker and an on-site pharmacist, the center plans to offer a host of treatments mostly unavailable to the East Harlem community in the past. The center, a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and North General Hospital, will offer cancer screening, outpatient chemotherapy, education and support, but also more innovative treatments, including a patient navigator program with guidance to help individuals maintain their treatments and cut through a lot of logistical red tape. The center cost $3.6 million to construct, with remaining funds planned to cover other expenses, including staff and future operations.
Lauren cofounded the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1989 with Katherine Graham, drove the campaign for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer that has raised more than $20 million over the past decade, launched his own Pink Pony campaign and has supported numerous other initiatives.The Ralph Lauren Center carries his signature perhaps more literally than any of his past efforts, bringing the refined look of his stores and showrooms into an environment of medical care. Twin waiting rooms with separate entrances for diagnostic patients and those already being treated are outfitted with saddle leather ottomans and sofas, wood chairs with woven backs and nylon Karastan carpeting designed to fit the needs of a commercial facility, but evoke the look of luxury flooring. The effect is not to pay tribute to the center’s benefactor, but to help the patients who will use it feel more special during difficult and uncomfortable treatments that are more commonly done in the sterile environments of hospitals.
"This did not come out of philanthropy," Lauren said. "This did not come out of a master plan. This did not come out of publicity. This did not come out of a fashion show. This came out of knowing someone who died. I couldn’t save her, but I am committed now, and that commitment has gone on for 15 years. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a long fight for all of us."
Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Harold Freeman, who was named medical director of the Ralph Lauren Center, have studied the connections between human condition and cancer and have demonstrated that minorities are more likely to suffer higher mortality rates of certain types of cancer, often because they lack the access to treatment and screenings. Freeman described his first meeting with Lauren two years ago to present his proposal for a center as a somewhat intimidating encounter, largely because he was wearing a tie that he feared would offend the designer.
"I was a little nervous to tell you the truth," Freeman recalled. "He put me at ease. He said, ‘You look great.’ But as I presented my plan, I noticed Mr. Lauren didn’t say anything. I told him we have special problems in a community like Harlem and I described that cancer always occurs under human circumstances. You must understand it is not only scientific conditions under which cancer occurs, but also the human conditions. He got up, shook my hand, and said, ‘I will help you.’ Then he left. I didn’t know what would happen."Freeman said Lauren’s office contacted him within a few days, requesting a formal proposal, which he immediately delivered, and which the doctor assumed was what convinced the designer to come on board. But Lauren remembered things differently.
"I never agreed to that plan," Lauren said. "I didn’t say anything at the meeting because I didn’t know what to say. In that room, I was really taken by this man’s heart. Dr. Freeman is a man who is all heart. He wasn’t selling anything. He was passionate. I felt electricity and when I left, I said, ‘This man is amazing.’"
"That’s a better story than what I was telling," Freeman said. "I thought it was the plan that sold it, but it was not the plan, it was the man."
Lauren and the medical staff hope that the center will demonstrate a successful reversal of cancer statistics in the neighborhood, both through treatment and education programs to treat obesity, discourage smoking and encourage healthy lifestyles. Thomas R. Frieden, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said 15,000 New Yorkers will die from cancer this year, but added that most of the cases are preventable through education and early screening. To that end, he lauded the opening of the Ralph Lauren Center as representing "a wonderful day for the community and a wonderful day for the health in this neighborhood."
To present a center that would live up to his name, the company enlisted its creative services department to form an atmosphere that looks more residential, but also incorporates the feeling of the community. Lauren’s signature touches include sprays of white orchids in glass vases supplied by VSF, the same company that serves his offices and stores, wood boxes organizing art books and fashion magazines, decorative lighting by Ralph Lauren Home, mahogany wall panelings and blue and white ticking fabric used as curtains separating the center’s chemotherapy suites.
The center’s long halls and lobbies are filled salon-style with framed photographs, culled from Polo’s archives, the New York Times and Iphotart, selected to celebrate African-American and Hispanic-American images and icons, while other walls feature quilts made by the Gee’s Bend Quilter’s Collective and 11 paintings from the nearby Children’s Storefront school.In addition to private spaces for consultations, the center is outfitted with four treatment suites — each equipped with TVs and DVD players, where the curtains can be drawn for privacy or opened for patients who want to interact with others. There is also an on-site pharmacy to facilitate treatments without requiring long waits for patients.
To Lauren, it was not his singular vision that made the center a reality, but the impact of his corporate family.
"I’m standing here as the persona of this effort," he said. "But it really came with the love and care of this company, Polo. I’m very proud of them and proud to be here."
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