By Deb Silverthorn
National Jewish Health (NJH) may be based in Denver, but it has a cheering squad in Dallas, that shouts from the rooftops about the hospital’s leading pulmonary, cardiac and immune conditions research and therapy.
On Tuesday, April 5, National Jewish Health honored Dallas native, and a former patient of the hospital, Bobbi Massman with its “Breath of Life Award” at a luncheon at Bent Tree Country Club in North Dallas.
“There’s nothing worse than not being able to breathe, and National Jewish Health let me breathe,” said Massman. “It took a lot to be away from my family, but it gave me my life.”
The luncheon introduced the community to members of NJH’s development team: Susan Latimer, the associate vice president of development and campaign; Secia Papilion, the senior associate director of development; and Lisa Tadiri, the vice president of development. It gave Dr. Gregory Downey, a pulmonologist, executive vice-president of academic affairs and provost at NJH, the chance to share the history, the lifelines, the work that is being done and the need for support.
“The world has awakened to the issues of respiratory diseases and the world’s collective efforts have been incredible. Our research continues to include the asthma and allergies of when Bobbi was our patient, of rare lung diseases and now post-COVID-19 care,” said Downey, who oversees all academic and research programs at National Jewish Health; he also holds the Drs. Harold & Mary Zirin chair in Pulmonary Biology.
Diagnosed with asthma as an infant, Massman spent much of her early childhood sickly, missing school and often having difficulty breathing. Held back in the first grade, at Walnut Hill Elementary School, she often had attacks that left her struggling. She vividly remembers praying to God to allow her to catch a breath.
After years of varied treatments, her doctor showed an article to her mother from the April 16, 1954, edition of Collier’s magazine titled “They’ve Got Asthma on the Run.”
“The doctor told my mother that she had to send me to the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic Children, now National Jewish Health, and there was no question about it. If she didn’t, he said I’d die within five years,” said Massman, who was only 11 years old at the time. “She was scared but my mother put me on a plane to travel alone and I was gone for two years. I wrote home once a week, called once a month and after a year my mother and sister Cindy came to visit.”
During her time in Denver, Massman and other patients, a rotating residency of between 150 and 200 children from many different countries and backgrounds, never paid any money for their care. The pediatric patients attended nearby schools and had chores to complete. She had regular testing for allergies and respiratory issues and was among the first to use many treatments that are commonplace today. In the two years that Massman flourished, adding 20 pounds to her previously slight frame, three of her young friends died.
After two years in Denver, Massman returned to Dallas, where she ultimately graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School. She attended college for two years before finances became too tight and it was necessary for her to work fulltime. She spent five years in the billing department of El Chico Corporation before marrying Richard Massman, whom she’d met on a blind date.
Massman treasured her role as stay-at-home mom to Jason (Toby) and Karen (Kyle Rovinsky) and the opportunities she had to volunteer and serve those around her. The “Breadth of Life Award,” in great part, honors Massman for the time, commitment and resources she’s shared to a wide variety of organizations in the community.
Now, cherishing the experiences she gets to share as the grandmother of Eli Massman and triplets Hiram, Leo and Meyer Rovinsky, she doesn’t take the blessings for granted.
“Asthma is awful and I feel for anyone suffering from it. I’m telling you that anyone with such issues needs to call National Jewish,” said Massman, who at the April 5 luncheon was given a plaque and a copy of the magazine which set her on the path to National Jewish Health.
National Jewish Health was founded by United Way co-founder Francis Jacobs Weisbart, who was president of the Denver congregation Temple Emanuel. With tuberculosis patients of all ages flocking to the city for its dry and sunny weather, Weisbart believed it was the responsibility of the synagogue to help provide a medical haven with proper nutrition, fresh outdoor exposure and bed rest.
One hundred and twenty-three years later, National Jewish Health is the only facility in the world dedicated exclusively to groundbreaking medical research and treatment of patients with respiratory, cardiac, immune and related disorders.
With 779 miles between the center courts of Denver and Dallas, the connections are tight. Cindy and Ike Brown, Howard Cohen, Tammany and Rob Stern and Ethel Zale are all trustees.
“The place is incredible — it’s just so good for mankind and that’s not something I say lightly,” said Cohen, who with his wife Carol Gene Cohen — of blessed memory — has supported National Jewish Health for the better part of 30 years. While Carol Gene Cohen, Massman and Brown grew up as close friends, it was Carol Gene’s grandmother Rose Polakoff who helped arrange for Massman and Cindy’s adoptions . The families’ connections to the hospital are only a coincidence.
Nearly 30 years ago, Howard won a charity golf tournament that was played at Dallas’ now-defunct Columbian Club. National Jewish Health, the sponsor, then invited Howard and winners from tournaments around the country to visit and tour the hospital.
Only a few years later, after a lunch meeting with NJH’s Latimer and Papilion visiting Dallas, Howard walked the team to a mah jongg table and introduced Massman to the team. It was their first time to connect.
“I’m so grateful to Carol Gene and to Howard for connecting us all and for their dedication,” said Massman. “Howard has been a phenomenal trustee and opened so many doors.”
“From the minute I stepped on the campus I could feel how incredible a place it was, its 240-plus scientists making all the difference in the world to people from all over, of all ages, of any social or economic background,” said Howard Cohen, who helped honor Massman at the April 5 luncheon. “The Massmans have recently made a donation to support an examination room, the Barbara ‘Bobbi’ Massman Examination Room, at NJH’s Center for Outpatient Health. What goes around, comes around, and now this special family will be a part of helping patients dealing with some of the same issues Bobbi did and they too will, G-d willing, grow up and give back.”
Ethel Zale’s family was first brought to National Jewish Health when her grandson Grant Frankfurt had significant allergy and respiratory issues. Three decades later he accompanied his grandmother to the National Jewish Health luncheon — now healthy, married, a father and an attorney; his grandmother credits the hospital for allowing her grandson to grow up to realize those dreams.
“Grant could have died, but National Jewish saved his life — his and thousands of others, I’m sure,” said Zale. “The hospital helped us immeasurably. We were first there for a couple of weeks and then returned many times for treatments and, while they wouldn’t let parents in to sleep [over] with the patients, I was the grandmother … they couldn’t keep me away.”
Grateful for the care, Zale returned to Dallas and with Tammany Stern formed a local chapter to support the hospital. Zale, her former husband David Frankfurt, Henry and Linkie Cohn and Rodger and Joyce Meier chaired a gala to support it.
“National Jewish is a lifeline that gives its patients an incredible quality of life,” said Stern; her husband and two of her sons are asthmatics and, while not patients of NJH, were beneficiaries of its research and developments. “We couldn’t be more passionate about our support.”
Allan Zidell, the hospital’s former patron and board member, connected many Jewish Dallasites to the hospital’s resources.
“We saw firsthand how amazing National Jewish was when my husband was evaluated by Dr. Downey. Not being able to breathe is the scariest feeling but, right away he knew what was what,” said Candy Brown; she and her husband Ike, like many, were introduced to NJH by Zidell. “As everyone has said, it is the best place to be.”
The hospital, which for most of its first 100 years never took payment from any patient, had long held the motto “none may enter who can pay, none can pay who enter.”
As a leader in the treatment of respiratory, cardiac and immune diseases, NJH is focused on developing and providing innovative clinical programs for treating and rehabilitating patients of all ages; it is also working toward preventing disease and discovering knowledge to enhance prevention, treatment and cures. It has an integrated program of basic and clinical research, as well as tools for educating scientists, physicians, health care professionals and the public.
The staff of National Jewish Health’s Lung Line has provided answers to more than 1,000,000 contacts and assists in scheduling pulmonary, allergy, rheumatology or immunology evaluations.
“This hospital made it possible for me to grow up, to be a wife, a mother and a grandmother,” said Massman. “To live the life I’ve had is nothing less than a blessing and National Jewish Health is responsible for that.”
A breath of fresh air, indeed.
For more information about patient care at National Jewish Health, call its Lung Line at 877-225-5654 or email email@example.com. To support the hospital, visit nationaljewish.org/giving