Monday, July 18, 2011

The Princess Lilian Cardiology Foundation

In Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006), Michel Verwilghen gives a full and detailed account of the development of the Princess Lilian Cardiology Foundation (pp. 309-314). Established in 1958 in Brussels, the institution combined the scientific interests and charitable inclinations of the second wife of King Leopold III. Following the widely publicized, successful surgery of her teenaged son, Prince Alexandre, who had been suffering from a cardiac abnormality then inoperable in Belgium, by Professor E. Gross at the Children's Hospital in Boston, Lilian began to receive appeals from other Belgians for help in obtaining similar care in the United States for their loved ones. Initially on an informal basis, the Princess responded generously to the requests, supplying financial assistance and organizing administrative and moral support for the patients. Her thoughtful and compassionate approach extended through their whole experience; during the transatlantic flight, sufferers were provided with companionship, children were given gifts to raise their spirits. (Little girls received dolls, for instance).

As the Princess' work expanded, she decided, at the suggestion of Belgian diplomat Joseph Jennen, to form a non-profit organization to perpetuate her enterprise. Accordingly, on December 10, 1958, she created the Fondation Cardiologique Princesse Lilian. The press, all too often brutally abusive of Lilian, had the good grace to give this accomplishment, at least, appreciative treatment; only Le Drapeau Rouge, a Communist, and, not surprisingly, violently anti-monarchist paper, saw fit to sneer at her efforts. At the outset, the headquarters of the Princess' foundation was placed across the street from the Royal Palace of Brussels, at 14 Rue Bréderode. It would later be moved to Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels. A close friend of Leopold and Lilian, Ernest-John Solvay, presided over the organization for the first few years of its existence. After the King, the Princess and their children left Laeken for the country estate of Argenteuil, in 1961, however, Solvay was replaced by Fernand Collin, a financier, jurist and professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. For a number of years, a former secretary of King Leopold, Charles Everarts de Velp, served as the secretary of Princess Lilian's foundation. The institution's administrative council included eminent Belgian personalities from the worlds of business and politics, such as Camille Gutt, former member of the World War II cabinet of Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot.

In the decades to come, through her foundation, Princess Lilian would furnish vital assistance to more than 3000 people. The statistics for the first decade alone are impressive: 123 Belgians traveled to the United States for surgery; 100 returned home cured, representing roughly an 80 % operative success rate. Without the care possible in America, these patients, including many children, would have died within a few months. Thanks to Lilian's efforts, however, they were blessed with a fresh opportunity for a long and full life. Around this time, technological advances in Belgian hospitals meant it was no longer necessary for patients to travel to the United States for cardiac care. Therefore, the focus of the Princess Lilian Cardiology Foundation shifted to importing American surgeons to perform delicate new operations in Belgium, while furthering the training of Belgian physicians in the latest techniques in the United States. Working in university clinics, with their Belgian counterparts, American specialists saved lives, relieved suffering and contributed to the development of Belgian medicine. Under the auspices of the Princess' foundation, cardiological symposia took place at Belgian universities, and many distinguished participants from all over the world enjoyed the gracious and elegant hospitality of Argenteuil. At the third symposium, hosted by the universities of Brussels, Ghent and Louvain, from May 22-25, 1962, legendary physicians Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey performed open-heart surgery on Belgian patients, while professors from the local faculties of medicine watched the operations on television screens in neighboring rooms. At Ghent, Princess Lilian herself attended the event.

As far as I know, Lilian's daughter-in-law, Princess Léa, assumed direction of the institution after her mother-in-law passed away.

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