Puts His Stamp on Breast Cancer |
(Including an interview
with Ernie Bodai, MD)
You may want to think twice before you say "no" to Balazs (Ernie)
Bodai, MD. That's what the United States Postal Service learned after
it turned down the 47-year-old surgeon's proposal for a special 33-cent
postage stamp, the proceeds from the extra penny to be earmarked for breast
cancer research. But the Postal Service hadn't reckoned with the kind
of determination that Dr. Bodai brings to his crusade to find a cure for
breast cancer. This August, that venerable agency--now a staunch ally
of Dr. Bodai and his idea--will issue nationwide a 40-cent semipostal
stamp, valid for mailing at the 32-cent first-class rate. Net proceeds
(seven or eight cents for each stamp sold) will go for breast cancer research--70%
to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and 30% to the Department of
Defense. (A fact not widely known, the Pentagon has spent $500 million
on breast cancer research since it was first authorized to do so by Congress
Against the Odds
Dr. Bodai's feat is astonishing when one considers the obstacles.
To start, there was resistance, some of it fierce, to an unprecedented
fundraising stamp. Objections came from the Postal Service itself, from
stamp collectors, and yes, even from national breast cancer organizations.
Not surprisingly, the Postal Service was fearful of the precedent a fundraising
stamp would set; as it is, the agency gets 40,000 ideas a year for commemorative
stamps alone. Postal authorities feared that acquiescing to one request
for a fundraising stamp would unleash an avalanche of similar requests
from other crusaders for equally worthy causes. More surprising was the
opposition by the American Philatelic Society, whose leader argued that
the added cost was tantamount to an unfair tax on stamp collectors. And
although some may think of stamp collecting as an esoteric pastime pursued
by apolitical hobbyists, stamp collectors have considerable lobbying clout,
contributing $100 million in annual profits to the Postal Service. Then
too, charity or semipostal stamps issued in other countries have been
far from successful. For example, a Canadian stamp designed to raise money
for the 1976 Olympics was a dismal failure, as was a more recent stamp
to raise money to fight illiteracy. Finally, Dr. Bodai had to face the
sobering reality that should he pursue legislative action, the chances
of getting a bill--any bill--through Congress would never be more than
a remote possibility. This year, for example, 10,000 bills were introduced
in Congress, but only 40, including the bill to mandate a breast cancer
stamp, were passed.
Crusading for the Cause
Still, Dr. Bodai is not a man to be easily dissuaded from a
mission, and by now his mission had become a passion. As Chief of Surgery
for Kaiser Foundation Hospitals in Sacramento, California, he had grown
increasingly frustrated by his inability to save, through surgery, many
of his patients with breast cancer. And there is no arguing that breast
cancer statistics are sobering:
- Each year, breast cancer affects 900,000 women worldwide, nearly 200,000
of whom are American, including 50,000 who will die from the disease.
- Between one in nine and one in 11 women contracts breast cancer.
- At least 2.6 million US women have breast cancer, an estimated 1.6
million of whom have undiagnosed disease.
- Breast cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death in
women 15 to 45 years of age.
Disturbing as these statistics are, there is still more discouraging
news for women. First, mortality rates for breast cancer have not decreased
in nearly half a century; a woman who contracts breast cancer in 1998
has no better chance for survival than did her counterpart in 1950. Second,
because of the rising costs of research, proportionately fewer research
projects are funded now than in past years. The NIH, for example, currently
funds only 26% of all proposals it receives.
Rejection of his proposal by US Postmaster General Marvin Runyon only
strengthened Dr. Bodai's resolve. That resolve turned positively steely
after he wrote to 48 congresswomen and eight women senators without receiving
a single response. Recalls Dr. Bodai, his voice still tinged with disbelief,
"I got zero response! That's when I got mad. That's when I bought
my first plane ticket to Washington." With a crusader's zeal, he
determined to lobby Congress to pass legislation mandating that the Postal
Service issue the special stamp. Thus began an odyssey that would take
him campaigning to Washington 14 more times in the next two years, deplete
his personal savings by $100,000, and transform him into an instant lobbyist.
At the same time, he knew the importance of gathering grassroots support
for his cause. He vowed never to decline an invitation to speak, and speak
he did: to more than 200 groups, including audiences as small as two persons
and as large as 1,500.
Despite the odds against him--passage of a revenue-raising bill usually
requires $10 million and four to five years--and hoping that a congressional
bill would force the Postal Service into action, Dr. Bodai began to prowl
the halls of Capitol Hill together with Elizabeth Mullen (a 39-year-old
survivor of breast cancer as well as founder and CEO of the Covina, California-based
Women's Information Network Against Breast Cancer) to enlist support for
the idea of a fundraising stamp. The work was slow and often tedious.
"I had a lot of doors slammed in my face, but I never gave up. On
the contrary, the cause took over my life," Dr. Bodai says.
Adds Ms. Mullen, "We had no experience, but we quickly learned the
game." She believed that lobbying for the stamp was placing her and
Dr. Bodai "on the brink of history."
At Last--a Stamp!
Bipartisan support for the stamp grew, and eventually Dr. Bodai
and Ms. Mullen obtained commitments from Representative Vic Fazio (D-California)
and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) to shepherd a bill through
Congress. Finally, on July 22, 1997, at 10:30 pm, Dr. Bodai perched in
the bleachers of the House of Representatives to watch as the bill flew
through the House on a vote of 422-3. On a unanimous vote, Senator Feinstein
arranged speedy passage of an identical bill through the Senate. Three
weeks later, on August 13, 1997, President Clinton signed the Breast Cancer
Research Stamp Act into law.
Rife with symbolism, the new breast cancer stamp is a line drawing against
a rainbow-hued background that shows the upper half of the body of Artemis,
Greek goddess of the hunt and protector of young women. The stamp bears
the legend, "BREAST CANCER" and is the work of Maryland designer
(and breast cancer survivor) Ethel Kessler and of illustrator Whitney
Sherman. The words "FUND THE FIGHT. FIND A CURE." encircle the
woman's missing breast, and her right arm is raised in the correct position
for examining one's own breast. She carries a bow and a quiver of arrows:
her reach for an arrow suggests her intention to do battle, and there
is no mistaking the enemy.
|Balazs (Ernie) Bodai, MD
Bright Prospects for More Research
Dr. Bodai is understandably elated with the fundraising potential
of the stamp. The Postal Service delivers 180 billion pieces of mail each
year, one third of which are sent via first-class mail. Capturing only
half that market would net an estimated $210 million a year. The US Postal
Service intends to issue 100 million stamps in its first run. Dr. Bodai
expects they'll sell in one month. At seven cents a stamp, that's $7 million--and
it's only a start. The stamp program will continue for a two-year test
period. Bodai hopes to raise between $60 million and $300 million.
Dr. Bodai has, against seemingly impossible odds, turned in a magician's
performance by realizing his goal for a postage stamp to fund breast cancer
research. If anyone doubts that statement, consider this: The US Postal
Service, once so opposed to the fundraising stamp, conducted its own survey,
determined that people disposed toward charitable contributions were as
likely to spend eight cents as an extra penny, and itself decided to increase
the price of the stamp to 40 cents! Still, Dr. Bodai is not without his
critics: some fault him for focusing on breast cancer while ignoring other
forms of cancer. To those critics, Dr. Bodai responds, "Advances
in breast cancer treatment are sure to cross-fertilize into treatment
for other forms of cancer." For Dr. Bodai, the ultimate goal is that
the threat from cancer--any cancer--will cease to exist.
|An Interview with Balazs Bodai, MD
Dr. Balazs (Ernie) Bodai exudes the kind of energy that brings
to mind a tornado or tidal wave. The force of his personality, his
enthusiasm, the sheer rush of his words in conversation, leave the
listener breathless. What, exactly, makes a man as inexhaustibly
driven as Dr. Bodai--a man who nearly single-handedly sought and
got passage of an unprecedented bill for a special fundraising breast
In response to the question, Dr. Bodai laughs self-deprecatingly
and cheerfully attributes his turbo-drive energy to hyperactivity.
"I've got A.D.D.!", he laughingly exclaims. Then, pausing
momentarily, he adds, "I'm like a dog with a bone!" and
laughs again. Dr. Bodai's achievements are, however, no laughing
matter. In addition to his duties as Chief of General Surgery for
Kaiser Permanente's medical center in Sacramento, he holds patents
on at least 13 medical devices and is part owner in three biomedical
companies. Of his inventions, he cites the Bodai neonatal suction
valve as the one he is most proud of. Patented in 1990, the neonatal
suction valve is routinely used in hospitals to suction infants
without necessitating the temporary removal of the ventilator. Although
he is modest in his depiction of the valve as a remarkably uncomplicated
device, he does not shy away from crediting it with having already
saved hundreds of neonatal lives.
Unable to relax in ways that most of the world understands, Dr.
Bodai uses time that others might call "spare" to contemplate
and immerse himself in new ventures. A prolific writer since the
days of his residency, he has authored or coauthored nearly 200
articles for publication. He is, in addition, the author of a 1994
surgical text book, Synopsis of Common Surgical Procedures.
Having successfully campaigned to get Congress and the US Postal
Service to issue a stamp whose proceeds will fund breast cancer
research, Dr. Bodai has lately focused his attention and energies
on a new Breast Health Center. Largely through his efforts, Kaiser
Permanente-Sacramento will dramatically improve services to patients
receiving treatment or services related to breast cancer. Where
before, patients were required to scramble from one location to
another to receive their care, they will now receive coordinated
care in one setting where various components of 15 to 20 disciplines
are assembled under a single roof. And what a roof it is! Dr. Bodai
has managed to obtain space for his project in the Region's newest
medical office. He is optimistic that with time, the office will
be devoted exclusively to breast cancer services.
Development of such a center has particular significance, says
Dr. Bodai. Within the Northern California Division, Sacramento as
the flagship hospital sees 330 breast cancer patients and does 1,000
biopsies annually--more than the combined number performed throughout
the rest of the Division. And by 1999 Dr. Bodai anticipates that
the number of Sacramento cases will climb to 500 and biopsies to
1,500. Equally noteworthy, says Bodai, but little known--even among
other Kaiser Permanente Divisions--the Northern California Division
enrolls more participants in NIH research trials than any of the
other 211 participating clinical outreach groups (those private
hospitals with a university affiliation).
Lest anyone think that his extra activities detract from his surgical
productivity, Dr. Bodai, as if anticipating this question, is quick
to point to statistics that show that he is as busy as any other
Kaiser Permanente clinician in Sacramento--both in surgical cases
and new consults.
In the physician world, where over-achievers are commonplace, Dr.
Bodai is a phenomenon. Asked to explain his fierce drive, he grows
momentarily reflective. His tone suddenly serious, he recalls having
fled Hungary at age six with his parents and two brothers after
the Soviet takeover in 1956. After arriving in the United States,
penniless and unable to speak English, the family took temporary
refuge with strangers before settling in permanent quarters. Home,
says Dr. Bodai, was a hovel. His most searing recollection is that
of his physicist father, a brilliant man who was reduced to laboring
as a bricklayer, because having lived behind the Iron Curtain, he
was considered a security risk. Perhaps the son's ambition may come
from a wish to redeem the father's failed hopes.
What motivates for a man like Dr. Bodai? Certainly not material
things; his only adornment is a 15-dollar Casio watch. He professes
to be notoriously indifferent to his attire, preferring the comfort
of surgical scrubs during the work day. Home is a comfortable but
unremarkable home in a pleasant area of Sacramento. His one luxury,
he admits somewhat sheepishly, is a new black Mercedes, which he
says his wife encouraged him to buy. As if in apology for his indulgence
in a rare luxury, he points out that the model--a 230--is Mercedes'
least expensive. What he likes best about the car is its license
plate--PL105-41--the title of the public law that made official
the breast cancer fundraising stamp.