<b>BIG GIFT:</b> Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree signs the last steel girder to be installed at the new Cancer Center.
She donated $10.7 million to the project. Beaming behind her is Sansum CEO Kurt Ransohoff.
Paul Wellman

It became the custom during Scandinavia’s pagan past for builders to place a tree on the top beam as a finishing touch for whatever structure they were erecting, to appease any natural spirits disturbed by the work. This week, a gathering of Santa Barbara movers and shakers assembled to watch 12 burley construction workers invoke that tradition.

The workers flipped a 45-foot-long steel beam ​— ​inscribed with the signatures of those assembled ​— ​on its side, planted an evergreen tree into a ceremonial aluminum bucket attached on one end with an American flag on the other, hoisted the whole thing skyward, and bolted it to the top of what will soon become Santa Barbara’s new Cancer Center.

The event marked the completion of the new three-story medical facility’s steel and concrete exoskeleton that was inspired, at least visually, by the sweeping stone walls and tall windows of Yosemite National Park’s iconic Ahwahnee Hotel. It also marked the end of an ambitious “silent” fundraising campaign that generated $33 million. When all is said and done, the new cancer center ​— ​to be named after philanthropist Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree ​— ​will have cost $68 million to buy, build, and equip with state-of-the-art radiation machines that will be safely ensconced behind concrete walls eight feet thick.

The top floor ​— ​commanding the best views ​— ​will be reserved for those undergoing the miraculous tortures of chemotherapy, the bottom floor set aside for those absorbing the precise bombardment of radiation therapy. The middle floor will be occupied by offices for oncologists and surgeons, though no surgery will take place on the premises. The second floor will provide space for genetic counseling; the sale of wigs, hats, and prosthetics; and a host of social services and alternate treatments, such as acupuncture, yoga, massage, and painting.

Cancer Foundation executive director Rick Scott said the idea for a new facility had been germinating since 2001, inspired in part by a dramatic shift in cancer treatment away from in-patient care to outpatient medicine. In that same time, Scott said, medical specialists who previously worked in isolation began collaborating more. For example, the treatment of women with breast cancer now starts with group meetings involving oncologists, surgeons, and radiologists. Such active integration has not always been the case. Once the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara begins operating out of just one location ​— ​as opposed to three sites now ​— ​the hope is to expand that approach from breast cancer to prostate and colorectal cancers, and beyond.

Fifteen years ago, Scott said, the center discovered 60 percent of its patients were pursuing alternate wellness therapies. “And about 60 percent of our patients were not telling their doctors about this,” he added. Given the potential for incompatible treatments, he said, that could prove problematic. In response, the center conducted research on the most effective “alternative” approaches and has integrated them into its offering. Medical marijuana, however, is not on the menu and won’t be anytime soon.

Also driving the need for space are projections that the over-65-year-old patient population will grow by 35 percent in the next decade. In addition, the Cancer Center ​— ​which merged with Sansum Clinic in 2012 ​— ​is positioning itself as a regional treatment hub, drawing clients from far beyond the immediate environs.

Making it all happen thus far are the $33 million in donations. Leading the charge for the new facility has been businessperson and philanthropist Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree, whose deceased husband, Paul, had been a patient of the Cancer Center. Sansum CEO Dr. Kurt Ransohoff recalled first visiting Ridley-Tree to explain the new plans for the Cancer Center. “Are you going to ask me for money today?” he recalled Ridley-Tree asking. “No, not today,” he replied. She shot back, “No, I think you should ask me for money today. I think you should ask me for money now.” “And I did,” he told the small crowd. “I’m not that stupid.”

Initially, Ridley-Tree pledged $5 million. Then she jumped it to $8.2 million. Ultimately, she donated $10.7 million. Ridley-Tree kept her remarks brief. “It will help to give comfort,” she said.


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