The Art & Science of Hope

by Amy Groh

An unlikely friendship will bring hope to cancer patients and music to your soul.

It’s not unusual for a doctor to instill hope in his patients, nor is it unusual for an internationally known musician to participate in benefits to raise money for worthy causes. What might be considered unusual, however, is the pairing of Dr. Jim McGee of OSF Saint Francis’ Radiology Oncology Program and the Scottish Canadian tenor John McDermott, who have joined forces to bring hope to Peoria’s cancer community. The friendship between the two began years ago, as does our story.

“When my son was quite young,” explained Dr. McGee, “he had a very severe breathing problem.” Treatment options in this country weren’t able to resolve the problem, so McGee took his son to the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Being a music lover, he ventured out to a record shop near the hospital and happened upon a CD by a tenor with whom he was unfamiliar. It was love at first listen! “I thought the music was really a great telling of stories, and I thought his voice was incredibly interesting,” McGee said of John McDermott.

McDermott, the ninth of 12 children, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and emigrated to Canada with his family in the 1960s. His music has been equally influenced by Scottish and Irish traditions, but his repertoire also includes contemporary ballads and songs.

McDermott’s music career came as a surprise to him, when a personal tribute album he recorded fifteen years ago for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary was discovered. The album, Danny Boy, was simply too good to be ignored by record labels, and its wider release kicked off a long string of platinum albums. In addition to his international success as a recording artist and performer, McDermott works tirelessly toward veterans’ causes and is known as much for his philanthropic efforts as for his music.

The stories which unfold in McDermott’s ballads initially drew McGee to the tenor’s music, kept his CD collection growing and inspired him to attend McDermott’s concerts whenever possible. “About eight or nine years ago, [McDermott] was up in the Chicago area, and I went to the show and was really captivated,” recalled McGee. “I always entertained the idea of finding some reason to bring him to Peoria”—a reason which arrived in the fall of 2005 when his eldest daughter became engaged.

A phone call to McDermott’s agent asking if the tenor could sing at the event received an affirmative response, and he was booked for the wedding. From his participation, McDermott was made aware of McGee’s efforts at OSF, and offered to come to Peoria to do a benefit for cancer patients. “That was really the start of it,” McGee told us, “and the first time I’d spoken to John at any length. He made that offer without a whole lot of knowledge of me.”

To guide the future development of the Radiology Oncology Program, the event “had to be a remembrance of the importance of what’s happened in the past,” said McGee. Communicating the spirit of hope to the community will “encourage people that new technology does mean that things are possible that weren’t possible before—not just in terms of better outcomes of treatment…but also in terms of being able to better control cancer.”

And that’s what the Spirit of Hope benefit is all about. Through it, the Radiology Oncology Program will receive much-needed funding and the opportunity to educate and reach out to the community. McDermott suggested this come in the form of a short video “about what’s new in terms of cancer treatment and…how to control cancer.” The 25-minute film will be featured at the benefit.

In addition, McGee thought it was important to have a positive song about the experience of cancer that instills hope in patients and their families. McDermott recommended bringing in singer/keyboardist Kevin Hearn of the popular band Barenaked Ladies to write the song. “Not only is he a good friend,” McDermott said—the two went to high school together—“but he is a cancer survivor who beat leukemia.”

In the initial stages of planning, McDermott and McGee entertained the idea of having a Mass for cancer patients in the hospital’s chapel. Monsignor Bliss, the chaplain at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, suggested having it at a larger venue, such as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and Bishop Daniel Jenky was asked to participate. When all was said and done, not only did the Bishop agree to celebrate the Mass, he offered to host a meet-and-greet with McDermott before the concert at his personal residence.

The funds raised from the Spirit of Hope benefit will be used largely to educate patients and their families on how to reduce their risk for cancer. “Most of the funds will be used for improving aspects…of how people understand and deal with cancer in their families and communities,” explained McGee. “We know that many cancers can be reduced in severity or frequency by efforts that go to education and motivation, and our program funds will be enhanced by those.” The money will also be used to purchase medical equipment for the Radiology Oncology Program at OSF and to supplement technology already in place. “My hat goes off to Jim McGee,” McDermott told us. “He’s relentless and good at what he does. He’s a very committed individual.”

“Basically, John McDermott, as an entertainer, was telling me, as a doctor, that we needed to put together information about cancer awareness,” McGee said. “And it was me, as a doctor, telling John McDermott, as an entertainer, that we should put together a song. So things were kind of flip-flopped there, but I think it’s been an inspiration for both of us, and hopefully it’s going to be interesting.” a&s

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