Rancho supporters have a ball at Amistad Gala

LONG BEACH - More than 500 Rancho friends, patients, staff and community leaders gathered at the sold-out Westin Long Beach Hotel Saturday night for "Happy Birthday, Rancho!", the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation's 2013 Amistad Gala celebrating 125 years of excellence at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. The fun-filled evening began with a massive silent auction with more than 70 items. The silent auction had the highest quality of any of the 27 Amistad Galas that have been held since Betty White received the first Amistad Award nearly three decades ago.

Attendees entered the ballroom to the strains of the Beatles' "Yer Birthday" greeting the overflow crowd. The room was festooned with birthday colors such as hot pink, purple, yellow and blue with balloons to match. The walls were warmed with fuchsia uplights and bright flowers and balloons added ambience. The chairs were covered in white with sashes in colors matching the bright hues of the tablecloths.

It looked like a giant birthday cake. The larges birthday cake was on the stage, a giant wood cake that was hand-built and painted by members of the Rancho Facilities Management Department. After Amistad Gala Chair Beverly Mathis welcomed those in attendance, she introduced the evening's Master of Ceremonies, Los Angeles County Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe. Don took the stage by popping out of the cake as the crowd went wild. It was a fitting entry for the man who has embodied the heart and soul of the Amistad Gala for more than two decades, the visionary leader who has been Rancho's number one supporter for all those years.

"Happy Birthday, Rancho!" the Supervisor exclaimed as he greeted the crowd and told everyone about a few of Rancho's accomplishments. "Rancho is ranked in the top ten of all hospitals by U.S. News and World Report and for the 23rd consecutive year it is California's number one rehabilitation hospital and also one of 'America's Best Hospitals'." He also informed the audience that in addition to its world-renowned inpatient care, Rancho accomplishes more than 80,000 outpatient visits each year. "This is more than any other rehabilitation hospital in the Western United States," he said.

The Supervisor then introduced Downey Mayor Dn. Mario Guerra, who gave a poignant invocation, reminding the audience of the critical role Rancho plays in healing those with disabling illnesses and injuries.

Next up was the remarkable Katy Sullivan, a real-life example of the miracles that happen every day at Rancho. Katy was born without legs, and although she wished to run her entire life, she never was able to do so until she wrenched her back trying to run and was transferred to Rancho Los Amigos for rehabilitation. At Rancho, physical therapist Julie Kasayama volunteered six weeks of after-work sessions to help Katy learn to use special prosthetics to not only walk, but to run, walking mile after mile around the 60-acre Rancho campus and in the final two weeks, jogging at the adjacent Apollo Park in Downey.

Katy took it from there, becoming the first double above-the-knee amputee to compete in an international track meet. Within two years, Katy had set a new world record in her category in the 200 meters in her category. Last year, Katy made one of the great comebacks in Paralympic history, coming from more than 15 yards behind to win the 100-meter Paralympic Trials in her category and earn a berth at the Paralympics in London. Katy ran in front of more than 80,000 people in the packed Olympic Stadium, running the race of a lifetime on one of sport's largest stages, and setting a new American Record in the 100 meters in the process.

Along the way, Katy inspired thousands of local residents and touched the hearts of people across our nation with her courage and her fabulous personality. What a pleasure it was for the Amistad crowd to hear Katy sing the national anthem. As is her custom, she did it a capella. When she finished her stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the crowd exploded in loud applause for Rancho's Paralympian.

Next up were Rancho Director of Patient and Community Services Gilbert Salinas and Rancho Los Amigos Foundation President Connie Martinez, who welcomed the audience on behalf of the hospital and foundation. Gilbert also told the audience about how the ceramic hearts at each table were lovingly hand-made by Rancho patients for the occasion.

"We salute the many individuals and organizations that give unselfishly of themselves in support of Rancho's mission," Connie said. "We celebrate the contributions of the entire Rancho team- doctors, therapists, nurses and all the supporting staff - who have committed their lives to helping our patients with disabling illnesses and injuries build bridges to more independent lives. Tonight we honor in particular Rancho CEO Jorge Orozco as well as renowned artist, businesswoman and Rancho patient Annie Ruth. These extraordinary individuals have each made an incredible difference in the lives of our patients with their kindness, courage and leadership."

After Don introduced the VIPs in the audience, attendees enjoyed a video capturing the 125 years of Rancho history. Then it was time for the Foundation's "Fund a Miracle appeal, where guests were able to support specific Rancho activities for $50 to $1,000. These included sponsoring a child in the Don Knabe Pediatric Arts Program, funding a birthday party for a child spending their birthday in the hospital, making it possible for a patient to participate in the Performing Arts of Rancho, supporting a Rancho pediatric patient's trip to Disneyland and funding a patient to experience therapeutic horseback riding.

All this activity made the audience very hungry, so people were happy that dinner was then served. As dessert was served, Don led the audience in singing "Happy Birthday". Then a special raffle was conducted where lucky winner Judy Berg selected from all the live auction prizes or a $10,000 diamond ring donated by Connie Martinez. She picked a trip to New York and a weekend at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, with airfare donated by Southwest Airlines.

The Live Auction was up next, featuring an amazing tailgate party for 125 people with the Tailgater rolling restaurant, donated by Farmer John; an Oregon Coast getaway donated by Carolee Winstein and Kip Thorne; a summer dinner party for 10 at the Assistance League's historic "Casa de Parley Johnson" in Downey donated by the Assistance League and Rio Hondo Event Center; a Long Beach Grand Prix package including tickets and a ride in the pace car donated by the Grand Prix Association and Keesal, Young and Logan; another weekend at the Waldorf-Astoria with airfare donated by Jet Blue; and an evening for two at "Dancing for the Stars" donated by On-Camera Audiences.

Then the evening's honorees took center stage. First was Rancho CEO Jorge Orozco, introduced by Connie Martinez. "I knew Jorge would be CEO of the hospital one day," she said. "That's why I moved him up while I was CEO of Rancho." She also told the audience about some of Jorge's accomplishments in his nearly quarter-century of serving Rancho's patients.

"I am very proud to receive this award, and I do so on behalf of all the patients and staff of Rancho who make it one of the world's great rehabilitation facilities," Jorge said. He told a wonderful story about a patient in the latter stages of ALS who had three wishes, the most challenging of which was to see snow again, and how the Rancho staff worked together to bring thousands of pounds of snow to the Rancho campus so he and his family could have one last play day.

"Rancho is well-positioned to be a world leader in rehabilitation medicine as we enter the next era of healthcare," Jorge said.

Then Rancho Board Member Carmen O. Perez gave an eloquent introduction of Rancho patient, artist and businesswoman Annie Ruth, who sustained a major spinal cord injury that left her unable to move her arms or legs after a balance beam accident at age five. "Annie embodies the spirit of Rancho," Carmen said. She finished her introduction by telling the audience Annie's motto: "Inch by inch, life's a cinch."

As Annie rolled onto the stage in her power chair, the crowd rose and cheered her all the way to the microphone. In a strong voice, she thanked Rancho and many of her doctors, particularly Dr. Donna Barras, Dr. Salah Rubayi, and Dr. John Farinacci.

"Dr. Barras was my first doctor at Rancho and she has been not only a great doctor but a great friend for all the years since," Annie said. "Dr. Rubayi was there to save my life when I needed a pressure ulcer surgery, but it was very hard to stay in one position without moving for 10 weeks so I could get better. He is also a great doctor and a great person."

She then explained about how, after having emergency kidney surgery at another hospital, she was sent home unable to eat, drink or speak. "So we called Rancho, and Dr. Farinnaci was there to help me regain the ability to talk, eat and drink again," Annie said. "Dr. Farinacci gave me a new tracheostomy that solved the problem, and he has without a doubt the best laugh of anyone at Rancho." In Annie's case, laughter was the best medicine.

Annie also told the audience about how vital Rancho is to individuals with disabilities, and also spoke about some of her many adventures. "I've been parasailing, paragliding, white water rafting and even skydiving," she said. "I love them all and it's really fun to have adventures like these." As Annie left the stage, the crowd erupted into a second sustained standing ovation saluting this most inspirational woman.

The evening ended on an amazing and yet funny note after, for the first time in Amistad history, the same person won two of the three raffle prizes. It was Dorothy Pemberton of Downey, a member of Soroptimist International. County CEO Bill Fujioka pulled her ticket from thousands in the raffle bin for the $1,500 first prize sponsored by the Optimist Club of Downey, then moments later County Director of Health Services Dr. Mitch Katz picked her ticket for the $500 second prize. The name on the tickets was merely "Big D", which as all her friends know, is Dorothy's nickname. As one could imagine, Supervisor Knabe had fun with the situation, especially when Dorothy's fellow Soroptimists told him that Dorothy was unable to accept her awards because she was in the restroom. Actually, she was on her way home, but doubled back to the Westin in mere minutes to accept her prizes.

Then the dance floor was instantly jammed with Gala attendees who finished their Amistad evening by dancing the rest of the night away.

So Rancho's grand birthday party included a little humor, a lot of inspiration, and the opportunity to spotlight Jorge Orozco and Annie Ruth, two individuals who have made a significant difference at the world-renowned hospital over many years.

But attendees didn't just have a Ball, they were also inspired by Annie Ruth and Katy Sullivan, two Rancho patients whose determination, courage and wonderful personalities made the 27th Annual Amistad Gala a truly special event.

********** Published: April 18, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 01