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Neely uses own tragedy as motivation to help others

by Adam Kimelman

"After my parents got diagnosed, I started gearing myself toward cancer-related causes, and if I was doing that, why not do something for cancer patients' families?"
-- Cam Neely

Through great tragedy, great things can come.

That might not be the motto of the Cam Neely Foundation For Cancer Care, but it's certainly what's happened in the 14 years since the Boston Bruins' Hall of Fame forward started his charitable foundation.

The foundation is geared toward helping families affected by cancer in every way possible, from improving treatment to helping families cope with ailing loved ones. It's a deeply personal thing for Neely, his brother and two sisters. Their parents, Marlene and Michael, both died from cancer.

"After my parents got diagnosed, I started gearing myself toward cancer-related causes," Neely told, "and if I was doing that, why not do something for cancer patients' families?"

Neely said one of the things he noticed in his parents' fight against the disease was how he and his siblings, who were adults when their parents got sick, felt left out.

"Dealing with our parents, we saw first hand how it affects the whole family," Neely said. "As children, you're left in the cold, not knowing what's going on. Doctors don't tell you everything because you're the child of adult patients."

Like other families watching their loved ones suffer with the disease, it meant a lot of time in the hospital, including around-the-clock stays. Through Cam's position as a well-known hockey player, money never was an issue. Most families, however, aren't as lucky.

That's where the Neely House at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston comes in. Opened in 1997 as an eight-room center, Neely House today is a bed and breakfast-style, 16-apartment unit inside the hospital that allows families to stay free of charge at the hospital while their loved one receives care. There is no limit on length of stay and a residential house manager, with clinical and hospitality experience, and social workers are available to patients and their families 24 hours a day.

"We're pushing over 5,000 families that have stayed, so you can see the need for it," said Neely.

The Neely Foundation originally was looking to either build a place or renovate an existing building near a hospital. Then executives at Tufts offered Neely a unique opportunity.

"We were talking to the cancer centers in the Boston area, and we liked what the Tufts center was about," he said. "Once we decided to affiliate with that hospital, they mentioned to us that they had some space in one of the hospitals that wasn't occupied and would we take over that space."

Neely said he wasn't too keen on the idea at first, but when he began listing the pros and the cons, there were far too many benefits to overlook.

"Originally I was skeptical because I didn't want people to feel like they were staying in a hospital," Neely said. "I mentioned to the hospital that as long as we have a really good say in what we want the space to be like and feel like. … They gave us the ability to do what we wanted as long as it was up to hospital code.

"When you get off the elevators you feel like you're in a hotel."

Each of the 16 units has its own kitchenette, private bath and living space. There also are two common kitchen areas and two common living rooms that allow for families to mingle and use each other as a support group.

"Being the family member of a cancer patient, all your friends feel for you and are understanding of what you're going through, but if they haven't really gone through it themselves, it's hard to have those conversations," said Neely. "I felt, and the rest of my siblings felt, if we talk to someone who has been through it, you get more out of it, so we felt those common areas would be beneficial. And it has proven to be that way. You can get some advice or talk without feeling like you're putting a burden on somebody else because they know exactly what you're going through. The house lends itself to staying in your room if you choose to do so, or if you do want to socialize and feel like you want to talk to other people, there are other areas in the house."

There have been other benefits Neely didn't expect.

"Family members as time went on could throw on a robe and go visit their loved ones," he said. "The other benefit is not worrying about parking, the expense of hotels and transportation, mass transportation was fairly easy from the hospital. Being very close to their loved ones, but not having to sit in the room all day, they could go back to the (Neely House) room without worrying about parking. There's a ton of benefits that we didn't realize."

Neely said there isn't room to expand Neely House any further, but there is what he called "a mini-Neely House" at the Neely Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Floating Hospital for Children, also located at Tufts.

Parents were staying at Neely House while their children were being treated at Floating Hospital, but rather than force parents to travel back and forth from one end of the hospital campus to another, the foundation spearheaded a project to create a residential area right in the transplant center. Now, there are four bedrooms for families to stay in while their children receive treatment, and the patient care rooms are big enough to allow parents to sleep in the room with their kids if they choose.

The latest project for the Neely Foundation is the Michael Neely Center for Brain Tumor Care and Research. While that campaign is under way, some of those funds have gone to Tufts Medical Center's Neurosurgery Department for a dedicated minimally invasive neurosurgical operating room. The state-of-the-art operating room contains leading-edge operating equipment and technologies.

"I'm very lucky that I had a platform to tell people what we were doing, why we were doing it and to have received the support we've had over the years," Neely said. "I can't thank all the donors and companies that have supported us year in and year out."

Neely said about 90 cents of every dollar donated to the Neely Foundation goes to cancer research or programs. The foundation staff -- headed by Cam's brother, Scott, as executive director -- keeps expenses as low as possible.
"Over the course of establishing the foundations, we're pushing $18 million raised, and we're averaging 90 cents (of every dollar) to the cause," Neely said. "That's something we take pride in. We want to give as much as we can, limit the expenses as much as we can."

Though his job as Boston Bruins vice president occupies most of his time, he remains as active as he can with the charity.

"I'm trying to play more a of role recently," he said. "It's something I'm very passionate about. There's a great staff -- small, but it's a very good staff. It's not my full-time job, but it's something that requires my time. I'm certainly very passionate about it.

"There's no better gift than giving. I always say this -- whether it's your time or your dime, it does make a difference."

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