Thanks to Alvin – a Tribute

By Mary Burns, RN, BS
Asst. Clinical Professor, School of Nursing, UCLA (ret)
Executive Vice President, PERF

Alvin Grancell has served as Vice-President of PERF since its origin.  He will be 99 years old May 28th. That is a very special event, of course, but why are we writing about it in a blog? Because Alvin has been very special in other ways that may have impacted your life also. Let me tell you some of this wonderful story.

Mary Grancell, the wife of Alvin Grancell, was a graduate of the third class of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program, known as PEP, at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, CA back in 1977.  Like so many of those early graduates, she remained very active in supporting the program and helping those who entered it.

It Started With A Donation In His Wife’s Memory

After Mary Grancell’s death from heart disease in 1982, her husband Alvin wanted to donate something special in her memory.  He offered me her two diamond rings, or anything else I preferred that was equal to their value of $6,000. The choice was easy. For years, I had yearned for an ear oximeter! Was that frivolous? No!  Only in dreams was an oximeter, at that time costing $6,000, available in a small hospital. Now PEP patients could practice their breathing techniques on this great new “toy” which many University research labs still did not have. If they did, it was kept safe in the exercise lab to be used only for special research.

Monitoring patients exercise with the new ear oximeter, it immediately could be seen that oxygen saturations often dropped, which could be expected, but if using pursed lips breathing (PLB), saturations increased while also reducing shortness of breath!  It was beyond exciting to observe. Now it was clear why patients did PLB.

The Start of a Collaboration With Dr. Brian Tiep

Dr. Brian Tiep was a visiting physician attending a meeting across the hall from where these patients were exercising.  Of all the doctors passing by, he was the only one who stopped to learn what the excitement was all about. He not only listened but also noted that he, too, had noticed something similar. This was the start of many years of exciting collaboration, most of it including PLB.

With patients having constant access to an oximeter, over and over again they found that certain breathing patterns could raise their oxygen saturation levels.

Now came the problem of proving all this to the medical community.  Would these PEP patients be willing to volunteer for a clinical study, Dr. Tiep asked?  Were they ever! Everyone was excited and eager to join. Necessary medical permissions were signed for the study designed by Dr. Tiep. Afternoons after classes, or on weekends, one by one, every PEP patient participated. Indisputable proof was obtained. PLB, properly done, increased the oxygen levels of the blood while decreasing shortness of breath!  It was a momentous achievement.

Alvin Launches PERF With A Second Donation

Meanwhile, on August 22, 1984, the Pulmonary Education and Research Foundation, better known as PERF, was started with a monthly donation of $5,000 from Alvin Grancell, again in memory of his wife Mary.  With these funds, more research could be funded.

All our patients this time took part in an NIH-funded study on the overnight use of oximetry before and after rehabilitation. It showed that their rehabilitation program led to improved oxygenation at night.

In 1985 Dr. Brian Tiep and Mary Burns won an award for their study on “Pursed Lips Breathing Retraining using Ear Oximetry”, achieved because of the oximeter and with the help of all those patients who volunteered.

A Patient Makes A New Discovery Using An Oximeter

Herman Gray had interstitial lung disease. In April of 1985, when he entered the PEP rehabilitation program, Herman also wanted to practice his breathing with the oximeter even though it was thought that only those with COPD could be helped.  By trying various breathing techniques, differing from those the other COPD patients used, Herman found that even with restrictive lung disease, he too could raise his oxygen levels with PLB while decreasing his shortness of breath! He was bouncing up and down on his chair with excitement and no wonder!  Another momentous discovery had been made, this time by a patient, who had access to an oximeter usually kept locked in a lab.

Dr. Tom Petty Spreads the Word

In 1985 Dr. Tom Petty held an international meeting of 1,000 pulmonary physicians in Denver to increase the interest in pulmonary rehabilitation.   He wanted a lecture on the two successful cruises taken by graduates of the PEP rehab program that also explained how their improved breathing techniques aided their ability to exercise and enjoy the trip.  It was a smashing success. Everyone in the audience was excited.

The Ear Oximeter Travels to Poland

One of those physicians that day was Dr. Jan Zielinski of Poland.  Inspired by the success of this small PR program in Torrance, Dr. Zielinski went back to Poland and started the first PR program behind the Iron Curtain.  We stayed in frequent touch and several years later gave him our wonderful old ear oximeter when we upgraded to a new one. It was the first oximeter behind the iron curtain!  Dr. Zielinski now was able to do his own research. He always dedicated that research to the PEP Pioneers whose help he acknowledged at large international medical meetings when he presented his studies.

If you knew that a $6,000 donation you made would have such a huge impact on the world, wouldn’t you too make such a donation?

If Alvin had never done anything more than all we have told you, he would have more than deserved this blog of appreciation.  But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the years, money from Alvin was used to buy equipment for rehabilitation, but also for research at LA BioMed at Harbor-UCLA.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation Becomes the Standard of Care Around the World

Starting in 1989, Dr. Richard Casaburi and his Harbor-UCLA colleagues published several important studies showing the mechanism for improved exercise tolerance of COPD patients after rehabilitation. Every eligible Pioneer volunteered for these studies! PERF provided seed money for this seminal research which proved, for the first time, that pulmonary rehabilitation led to physical improvement in typical rehabilitation participants, not just psychological “feel good” assistance as was commonly thought. This was a huge milestone! Eventually, it helped insure medical reimbursement for pulmonary rehabilitation and made it the standard of care for pulmonary patients around the world. Dr. Casaburi’s studies, completed with the assistance of patient volunteers, proved that pulmonary rehabilitation is more effective than any COPD medication!

Alvin’s Donations Help Bring Visiting Scientists From Other Countries

Many more research studies took place assisted by seed money from PERF, while Alvin also set up a separate fund for financial assistance to visiting scientists from around the world.

Besides the amazing achievements that grew from Alvin’s generosity, what can we learn from all this?  We can learn

  • The power of patients who become involved in their own care.
  • The value that can come from volunteering for research.
  • The value of research.
  • And the amazing things that can sometimes be accomplished with even modest amounts of money donated for research.

Thank you, Alvin, for the assistance you have provided over the years, but mostly for giving me that wonderful oximeter. It still means far more to me than diamonds ever would have. Happy Birthday!

birthday cake 99