Tom Hofheimer Revisited

March 20, 2015

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Tom Hofheimer.

Tom Hofheimer.

Tom Hofheimer and the Medical Mission

We begin with this brief introduction to honor the memory of Tom Hofheimer, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of his passing and the 30th anniversary of the Tom Hofheimer Foundation and its various versions since its creation, initially, as the Tom Hofheimer Memorial Fund.

It all really started in 1982, at a Thanksgiving dinner in the home of plastic surgeon Dr. Charles Horton, of Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS). Dr. Haggai Tsur, head of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, Israel, Dr. Horton’s guest, invited Horton and Dr. Boyd H. Winslow, a urologist at EVMS to visit Israel. He repeated his invitation a year later and finally, in 1984, their visit to Israel, underwritten by “Friends of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater,” became a reality. While in Israel, Horton and Winslow lectured and demonstrated new micro-surgical techniques for uro-genital reconstruction to repair male sexual organs damaged by accident, burns, congenital malformations and war wounds (the latter of particular concern due to injuries caused by “pop-up clusters” during the recent war in Lebanon).

Drs. Horton and Winslow began to dream of a “cooperative exchange between EVMS and Israel through which Norfolk physicians and Israeli physicians would exchange places with one another for a specific length of time.”

Horton and Winslow’s techniques made quite an impression in Israel. Israel’s treatment of patients, including Arab patients from countries still technically at war with Israel, made quite an impression on Horton. Thus it was not surprising when early in 1985 the internationally regarded plastic surgeon proposed that the Jewish community of Tidewater expose Israeli plastic surgeons to the latest techniques in plastic and reconstructive surgery through a series of six month residencies at EVMS.

Initially it appeared that the concept of an ongoing medical exchange program between physicians in Israel and Norfolk, Va., funded by private sources, had two chances of success; slim and none. Major metro Jewish communities had struggled with such programs; how would our small community, working with no guidelines manage to fund and manage such a program?

A small group of community leaders began to develop an interest in the concept, but it took a commitment from a strong leader to get the program off the ground. That was Tommy Hofheimer! Tommy, then president-elect of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, was engaged in his own personal struggle against a deadly cancer. When I visited him after his return from treatment in New York, and shared a piece of Marcia’s fabulous cake, he told me that he planned to go back to work (Tommy was an executive at Haynes Furniture) and to work as long as he was able. However depleted his energy may have been, he was fascinated by the idea of an American/Israeli medical exchange and began the process of putting together an organization.

Those of us who had worked with Tommy when he chaired the United Jewish Fund Campaign or when he organized a fabulous four-bus-load study mission to Israel, appreciated his style of leadership, persuasive rather than demanding. We followed him because it was fun working with him, and within a few months, the program was off the ground and in the early stages of implementation.

Tommy said “Let’s get to work…we’ve got a lot to do.”

American health-care professionals prepared to go to Israel to put out feelers for the first exchange. Tommy didn’t get to see that part. About to leave for Israel myself, and knowing Tommy might not be with us by the time I returned, I went to see him. I was shaken, but he boosted me up. “We want the same things, Hal. Keep on doing what you’re doing.” On March 17, 1985, at age 50, the cancer he dealt with so resolutely, took his life.

The exchange program had become the symbol of Tommy’s struggle and his hopes for Israel’s future.

Marcia Hofheimer, Tommy’s wife, and his sister, Joyce Strelitz, organized the Tom Hofheimer Medical Mission in his memory. Donations poured in from Tommy’s peers in the furniture industry, from leadership and from dozens of ordinary Tidewater folks, Jewish and otherwise and the Tom Hofheimer Memorial Fund underwrote the residencies of 15 Israeli plastic surgeons from June of 1985 until 1999. For 14 years, Israeli physicians, some with and some without their families, were provided transportation to and from Norfolk, housing, an automobile and a stipend. By the time the project ended, the Tom Hofheimer Medical Mission had simply trained all the Israeli surgeons working in uro-genital reconstruction, and practically every plastic surgery department in Israeli hospitals was chaired by one of our EVMS fellows.

Future articles in Jewish News will revisit subsequent projects of the Tom Hofheimer Medical Mission, and its successor the Tom Hofheimer Fund.

by Hal Sacks

Letter to the Editor