The Stars Come Together… in a Hospital Bed

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Recently, as I was recovering from open heart surgery in a local hospital, I had the pleasure of meeting some remarkably gifted caregivers. I tend to ask a lot of questions, and since I have never before gone through surgery, this habit of mine was on display, if not exacerbated.

I peppered the nurses with a series of questions: What motivated them to go into nursing? Did they have children? What did they like to eat for breakfast? You know, anything to get the focus off me.

On the night of June 3rd, the stars came together. I was quizzing a young nurse named Emily about where she studied nursing. She started at Edinboro University, she told me, and finished at Mercyhurst College where she had received a major scholarship. Mercyhurst College! In my past life, as vice president for advancement at Mercyhurst, one of my passions was growing the scholarship endowment, building capacity for students in need. I could feel my heart in recovery beat faster when I asked Emily the name of her scholarship.

“The Martin Haas Family Scholarship,” she said.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. I must have been speechless for two minutes, which, for me, is rare. Then I started talking. I told her that the Haas Family would be very pleased to know that she had received their scholarship. “You are exactly the type of person they wanted to help: someone who is compassionate, caring and professional.”

Though it took my first surgery to bring this serendipitous moment, this is every development officer’s dream: the chance to meet someone whose life was directly impacted by your work, and to have the opportunity to share behind-the-scenes information about how her scholarship came into being.

Emily was all ears as I told her about that rainy night in the State Dining Room at Mercyhurst in 2002 when we made “the ask” of Martin Hass. And the story gets better. At the time we persuaded Marty for his support, we had received a “Million Dollar Challenge” to build the scholarship endowment at Mercyhurst North East from one of our trustees, Bob Miller, whom I affectionally called “the George Washington of Mercyhurst North East.”

Coincidentally, Bob passed away on May 26, three days before my surgery on May 29. It had bedeviled me that I was unable to pay my respects to his family, due to my own condition. Bob Miller, too, had played a significant role in Emily’s life. The scholarship that we had asked Marty Hass to support had been doubled, due to Bob Miller’s Challenge. That scholarship would enable Emily to finish her nursing degree and launch her career; and it would bring her to the place where she could help a patient like me. For me, being able hear – and see in action – the impact of my work when I needed it most was the greatest blessing of all.  

When you are recovering in a hospital bed, you do a lot of thinking, actually too much thinking about life, your life. What could have been, how you might have done things differently. I got to thinking: what was the likelihood of a man like me – Emily’s patient -- recovering in a hospital bed and connecting such important dots? I’m here to tell you that we both shed a tear over the “pretty ways of providence.” I am glad that I put on my questioner’s cap that day, assuming the role of grand inquisitor.

As I tell younger fundraisers, you have to stick around for a while to experience breathtaking moments like these – delivered by angels – when you know for certain that what you do – and did -- matters, that you touch lives. My colleague Bill Crouch calls it the “circle of consequence”, and what a powerful circle it is.

Years ago -- ironically on June 3rd, 2004 – a fundraising colleague Bill Sturtevant shared a quote by an unknown author, one that I’ve never forgotten.  

“It takes a noble person to plant a tree that will one day provide shade for those whom he may never meet.” 

In my case, I was most fortunate to experience that shade and meet someone who had benefitted from generous philanthropy by noble souls whom I knew personally. Getting a piece of that philanthropic shade tree has helped me heal and made me smile again!

BIO:  Gary Bukowski is associate vice president of development at Sarah A Reed Children's Center in Erie, PA. He has over four decades of fundraising experience in the higher education and human service arenas.