When Jim Gutschow first met Philip Bierman, M.D., at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, he had already resigned himself to bad news. His wife, Pam, had stayed home in Kansas City, not wanting to drive up to Omaha just to hear the same devastating diagnosis: Jim had just five years to live.
But that's not what Jim heard that day.
Jim had been diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Two hospitals had already told him there was nothing they could do.
But at UNMC, doctors were doing something different. It was one of the few places in the world at the time conducting successful stem cell transplants. Dr. Bierman told Jim he could cure him with this lifesaving technique.
"I basically blanked out," Jim recalled. "All I could think about was I'm 38 years old; I've got these three little kids at home. I can't wait to go home and tell Pam this."
Jim began his treatment at UNMC in December 1994. A practicing Catholic, he talked to his priest before the surgery. His priest predicted that Jim would experience a time when he would be so sick that he would believe he was dying. He said to pray with all the strength he could muster and not to give up the fight.
That moment came at about 2 in the morning, when Jim crawled out from the bathroom in his hospital room on all fours. He felt as close to death as his priest predicted. But when he came out of the bathroom, a nurse was waiting for him. She stayed with him for several hours, holding his hand while he prayed.
By the time the sun came up that morning, Jim had begun to feel better.
Jim recovered from the cancer, but that wasn't the last time he came to UNMC. He returned to UNMC and Nebraska Medicine, the university's primary clinical teaching partner, for another surgery to treat pancreatic cancer several years later and again to be treated for polymyalgia rheumatica.
Each time, Jim says, he experienced remarkable compassion from his doctors, nurses and the entire care team. It strengthened him in some of his most trying moments, and it also inspired him and his wife, Pam to recognize that compassionate care with a generous gift.
In 2017, Jim and Pam established the Gutschow Family Oncology Compassionate Care Awards through two planned gifts. Their vision was to recognize those physicians, nurses and care technicians at Nebraska Medicine who demonstrate compassionate care for patients undergoing cancer treatment with an annual award and financial gift.
"I feel enormous gratitude for the level of care I received at UNMC and the compassion the doctors, nurses and staff showed me as I went through some of the most difficult periods of my life," Jim said. "Today, I am thankful to say, I have been able to turn that gratitude into something special that I hope will 'pay it forward.'"
In recognition of their planned giving, Jim and Pam are members of the Burnett Society.
In 2021, Jim realized he and Pam were in a position to execute one of their planned gifts early, during their lifetime, giving them a chance to witness its impact.
At an emotionally charged inaugural awards ceremony Dec. 3, attended by many of Jim's care team and his children, Jim recognized the nurse, Susan Kruse, who helped him through that dark night 25 years earlier.
"Hardly a day goes by when I don't think about how you helped me and my family," he said. "Human touch is such a source of healing, and I know you holding my hand throughout the night helped me to heal."
Tom Thompson, senior director of development at the University of Nebraska Foundation, said the profound impact of Jim and Pam's gift will live on in perpetuity.
"It certainly is a high note in the time I've been with the foundation to work with a couple who have done something so special," he said. "This is here for a long time. That's why it's so great for the kids to be here, because I think some day we're going to see grandkids here."
Jim said he hopes each year the awards inspire others to remember the importance of compassion and to keep going on tough days.
"This is an acknowledgement that you're a really nice, great person," he said. "People realize what you do."