26th Gala for Life Makes a Million Dollar Impact on Cancer Care in Arkansas

By Marty Trieschmann

Statehouse Convention Center Ballroom

Image by Bryan Clifton

The 600 guests attending the 2023 Gala for Life benefitting the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute were transported to a tropical paradise complete with orchids and palm trees.

The 26th Annual Gala for Life, “Sunset Under the Palms: A Key West Soiree,” was held Sept. 22 at Little Rock’s Statehouse Convention Center. The theme reflected event chairs, Kim and Chris Fowler’s, love of Key West, Florida, where they have a home. Chris Fowler is a cancer survivor who was treated at UAMS.

In 2021, UAMS received a $1 million donation from the Fowlers to support the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute’s quest for National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation.

After welcoming and mingling with guests during a pre-dinner reception, the Fowlers took the stage to share their personal experience with cancer.

“I know firsthand what it’s like to be staring down cancer,” said Chris Fowler. “And I’m alive today because of the amazing care I got at UAMS. It’s really an honor to be chairing this event tonight and give back to the people I owe my life to.”

In addition to the Fowlers, lead sponsors included the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, Inc., and Highlands Oncology. View a complete list of sponsors here.

Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Director Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., also welcomed guests and shared an update on the Institute’s progress.

“We’ve created a new Phase 1 Clinical Trial Unit, the only one in the state, revamped our Clinical Trials Office, hired 22 new cancer researchers and 18 physicians, launched community outreach and engagement and cancer research training and education programs, added three new associate directors in Cancer Institute leadership and continued to increase cancer grant funding necessary for NCI designation,” said Birrer.

Guests of honor were UAMS patients, Dwight Hamilton and Thomas Wages, who shared their stories in a video that aired during the event.

Hamilton is a Stage IV kidney cancer survivor who is doing well on a Phase 1 Clinical Trial led by Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

“It’s very exciting,” said Birrer. “We’re fortunate to have the only academic Phase 1 Clinical Trial Unit in the state of Arkansas that allows us to offer these new therapies to patients who have run out of options.”

Thomas Wages, and his wife, Jeanie, were guests at the UAMS Hematology Oncology table and watched the video about his 15-year battle with chronic leukemia with his doctor, Muthu Veera Kumaran, M.D., by his side.

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA welcomed the many elected officials and members of the Arkansas General Assembly who attended the event, including Arkansas Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge; Department of Transportation Director Lori Tudor; Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chip Welch; Arkansas Rep. Denise Garner, a past gala chair and Cancer Institute board member; Arkansas Rep. Ashley Hudson; Little Rock Vice Mayor Kathy Webb; former state Sen. Joyce Elliott; and former state Rep. David Rainey.

“Kim and Chris have been so generous with their time and support of the cancer institute and many other wonderful causes in Arkansas,” said UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA. “We cannot thank them enough for their contributions and for making tonight possible.”

Next came a heartfelt tribute to the pioneers of the Cancer Institute. Kent Westbrook, M.D., and James Suen, M.D., were recognized for their leadership in establishing the Arkansas Cancer Research Center —  now known as the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

“Thank you, Kent and James, for your vision and for dreaming dreams that have saved and changed so many lives across our state,” said Patterson.

The evening included a cocktail reception featuring a signature drink aptly named The Hemingway for famous Key West resident, the late Ernest Hemingway.

Dinner and dancing followed the reception. Guests dined on marinated filets with Key West shrimp. Dessert was key lime pie.

Live auction items included a private dinner with Italian royalty, Prince Lorenzo de ’Medici, a direct descendant and heir to the Medici family, and a breakfast for four and browsing at New York’s Tiffany & Co.

The hottest live auction item of the night was a vintage Bentley, raffled off at $1,000 per ticket and won by Lester Matlock of Little Rock.

Including the $500 per person ticket sales, live auction items, sponsorships and table donations, the event brought in more than $1 million to support the Cancer Institute’s work to achieve NCI designation.

View photos of the event here.