- Alexandra Clough Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The Bascom Palmer Eye Institute’s vision to build a macular degeneration research center in Palm Beach Gardens is one step closer to reality: Philanthropist Lois Pope has pledged a whopping $12 million to build it.
The donation will create the Lois Pope Center for Retinal & Macular Degeneration Research at Bascom Palmer’s Palm Beach Gardens campus, at 7101 Fairway Drive, off of PGA Boulevard near Florida’s Turnpike.
The gift, the largest Bascom Palmer has ever received, was announced Friday evening at its annual gala, held at The Breakers Resort on Palm Beach.
In an interview on Monday, Pope said she was moved to donate the money in memory of her late mother, Anastasia Berrodin, who was treated for macular degeneration by Bascom Palmer.
“One day she called me and said, ‘I can’t see,’ ” said Pope, who lives in Manalapan.
Pope said she still remembers how kind the Bascom Palmer physicians at the University of Miami were to her mother, including providing her with various devices to help her see.
Pope, who leads the Lois Pope LIFE Foundation, is a noted philanthropist who often gives very large gifts.
She donated $10 million to the University of Miami for spinal cord injury research. She’s also given millions to disabled veterans and spent two decades spearheading a memorial to disabled American veterans, which opened in 2014 in Washington, D.C. Pope spent $10 million to help pay for the memorial’s construction.
Pope said she tries to be wise about the way she spends her fortune, which was left to her by her late husband, Generoso Pope Jr., former publisher of the National Enquirer and other tabloids.
“The truth is, my husband left me a great deal of money. And he trusted me. I would never betray his gift. So I’ve tried to (give money) in ways that would make a difference in people’s lives,” Pope said.”I think, ‘Would Gene approve of this?’”
When it came to Bascom Palmer, Pope said she concluded yes, marking her largest gift to any organization.
“I’ll be 85 on June 7,” she said. “This is the last, large gift I will be able to give in my lifetime.”
When Bascom Palmer built its new Palm Beach Gardens campus in 2006, one of three buildings was left empty, set aside for future use as a research center, Bascom Palmer chairman Dr. Eduardo Alfonso recently told The Post.
Bascom Palmer decided to zero in on treating macular degeneration because of advances such as stem cell and gene therapy.
Last month, Alfonso said $15 million would be needed to build out the space, hire the finest clinical scientists and get to work. Pope joked that her $12 million “is a little short” of that amount, but Bascom Palmer also has pledges from several donors for $3.8 million, according to a project brochure.
Bascom Palmer already has numerous Palm Beach County patients participating in clinical trials. But this planned center not only will boost research and treatment efforts, it will boost Palm Beach County’s profile, too.
Indeed, Alfonso said Palm Beach County is turning into an “epicenter” of health care excellence, with a growing infrastructure of both research and treatment, Alfonso said.
Palm Beach County’s generous philanthropists are a reason why centers such as Bascom Palmer, Cleveland Clinic, NYU Langone and other leading medical providers want a presence in the county.
For Bascom Palmer, most of the money for its expansion, including the Palm Beach Gardens campus, came from grateful patients and generous donors.
In a statement, Alfonso said Bascom Palmer was “incredibly grateful” to Pope for her gift, which he said will usher in “an unprecedented era of scientific discovery in our mission to end macular degeneration and other blinding conditions.”
Among Palm Beach County’s older population, macular degeneration is widespread. Sometimes it is a harbinger of other age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Alfonso said. That’s why the research and clinical trials performed by Bascom Palmer are so important, he added.
The degeneration of the macula, in the center of the retina providing the keenest vision, is the leading cause of severe vision impairment and blindness among Americans aged 60 and older.
Pope knows this well. She watched as her mother, a former teacher, lost her vision and was forced to rely on others for help. She eventually went completely blind and passed away in 1996 from a stroke.
In announcing the award Friday night, Pope expressed a desire to help others avoid her mother’s “dreadful” disease and repay the kindnesses shown to her mother so many years ago.
At the end of her remarks, an attendee said she moved the crowd to tears when she looked up and addressed the audience of one, saying, “I love you, Mother.”