OPINION: Arthur Blank’s $200M gift to Children’s Healthcare is no game

Atlanta United team owner Arthur Blank and his wife, Angie, toss souvenir soccer balls to fans along the championship parade route on Dec. 10, 2018, in downtown Atlanta. (photo credit: Bob Andres / AJC file)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

It was hospital elevator small talk. I was heading up to my son Michael’s room and encountered a family loaded with gear to make their stay at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston more comfortable.

The family was from Middle Georgia and in for a long visit with a child who had leukemia. The dad asked where I lived. Three miles away, I told him.

“You’re lucky,” he said.

Now, my son was fighting an aggressive, ultimately fatal, form of bone cancer. So lucky was probably not the right term. But I knew what he meant. Having Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta around the corner was a good thing.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.

I’ve been thinking about our family’s relationship with Children’s this week after hearing Arthur Blank’s foundation was donating $200 million to help build a 19-story, $1.5 billion hospital near I-85 and North Druid Hills Road that will be named after him. The 78-acre campus will be the largest for Children’s Healthcare, which currently operates three hospitals.

Blank’s gift announcement came Monday morning, just hours after Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired when the team lost again and sank to the bottom of the NFL with a 0-5 record. Blank not only owns the Falcons, he is among the most visible, hands-on, sideline-stalking owners in the NFL and loves being in the thick of it.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank (right) and head coach Dan Quinn confer on the field before playing the New Orleans Saints in a NFL football game on Thursday, November 28, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Quinn and Dimitroff’s tenure had been precarious for at least a year, as they’d overseen two losing seasons, as well as the infamous 28-3 game — the biggest choke in Super Bowl history. That Blank personally liked them no doubt made this difficult.

And the timing? Ouch. The announcement, I’m told, had been planned for months — the hospital gift, not the firings. So it made this weird. Here Blank is handing out his largest-ever philanthropic contribution and all anyone wants to talk about is a bald guy with a headset who’s now looking for work.

But it underlines what’s really important. One is a kids’ game played by adults. The other is adults saving sick kids.

In a video announcing his gift this week, Blank said Children’s “is like home” for these sick kids and their families, with “the wraparound love that everyone feels when they walk in those doors.”

That sounds corny but it’s true.

Michael Torpy with service dog in the hospital. Torpy family photo

My family’s most joyous and anguished moments came inside the walls of Children’s Healthcare. In 2017, we were told after Michael’s lung operation that the cancer had spread far more than we thought. Days later, we rejoiced when tests indicated the chemo treatments had killed almost all the cancer in his lungs.

Three months later, just days before Christmas, Michael finished his eight-month intensive treatment and left the hospital after more than 100 overnight stays. About two dozen nurses, doctors and other health care workers stood and clapped. It was a walk-on-clouds moment.

But soon, the cancer returned, and the doctors and nurses who had invested so much time, expertise and psychic energy in my son’s survival took the news like a gut punch.

There is something special about professions that treat desperately sick kids while tending to despairing parents. On our first visit to Children’s Healthcare, we spotted a couple of clowns working the waiting room. Michael was 17, so he made it under the wire to be admitted. But he was old enough to have absolutely no need for any stinking clown. “Oh God, don’t come near us,” he muttered as I waved them off.

Months later, a line of clowns serenaded him with kazoos and salutes as he went home after a brutal week of treatment. He smiled.

Children’s Healthcare was surreal at first. It was unnerving to see a mother pulling a bald toddler in a wagon down the hallway as the father pushed the rolling IV stack. A couple of months later, it was as normal as seeing a robin on your lawn.

It’s just that kind of place. There was a forged intimacy with the families who are enduring the most terrifying and wretched times of their lives. Nurses remembered personal information about Michael and had running jokes. They somehow were pleasant and upbeat, although not with a syrupy Up-With-People vibe. There was Pizza Tuesday. Sandwich Thursday. Volunteers were frequent. Even the cafeteria folks were nice.

And the nurses and a doctor still send my wife, Julie, kind notes.

The rapper Ludacris came by the hospital, as did pop star Katy Perry. One day, I returned to Michael’s room after a walk and heard that a football player, Grady Something-or-other, had stopped by, sat down and had a nice long chat. It was Falcons’ defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, a 300-pound Pro-Bowler. Michael didn’t know who he was but enjoyed the conversation.

This is a rendering of the Arthur M. Blank Hospital. (credit: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta)

Credit: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

I spoke with Arthur Blank on Tuesday. The 78-year-old co-founder of Home Depot figures his foundation will ultimately give away 95% of his nest egg. They must get busy. Forbes recently estimated Blank’s fortune to be $6.1 billion, a half-billion more than last year.

His former Home Depot partner, Bernie Marcus, who funded the Georgia Aquarium with a $250 million gift, plans to do the same. It’s great having hometown billionaires in a disseminating mood.

“It’s a way to recycle all that goodwill and good intentions,” Blank said of his desire to give away most of his fortune. “That’s why it’s important that people like myself, a billionaire, or a millionaire or an ordinary person give whatever you can give. It’s all important, whether you give your money or your time.”

So how did Children’s Healthcare win the largest donation in its history?

A number of factors came together. Blank, a 42-year Atlanta resident, said his former wife, Stephanie, has been involved with Children’s for years. Meanwhile, he’s friends with the hospital’s CEO Donna Hyland, who used to work at Home Depot. Blank also has six kids and a number of grandchildren, and a few of them have been in and out of the place.

This year, his 9-year-old granddaughter Nadia was there for surgery to repair a hole in her heart.

“It’s another of their miracle stories,” said Blank, another satisfied Children’s family member.

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