Gina Villani​​

A conversation with the RL Center’s CEO and medical director

More than 20 years ago, after his close friend and Washington Post fashion editor Nina Hyde was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ralph Lauren made a commitment to focus his philanthropic efforts on eradicating the devastating disease. In 1990, he helped establish a center for breast cancer research at Georgetown University Medical Center in Hyde’s name. And in 1994, he led the fashion industry in its support of breast cancer research with the Council of Fashion Designers of America initiative Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.

In 2001, with the backing of his corporation, Mr. Lauren created the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation to support programs that benefit cancer care and prevention, education and volunteerism in underserved communities. Among the foundation’s major philanthropic commitments are the Pink Pony Fund—dedicated to supporting programs for early cancer diagnosis, screening, education, treatment and research—and the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, also known as the RL Center.

Established in 2003 in partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and North General Hospital, the RL Center is the only outpatient facility of its kind in Harlem, New York. We met with Gina Villani, M.D., the RL Center’s medical director, to learn more.

Dr. Gina Villani, CEO and medical director of the RL Center

 

Ralph Lauren: The RL Center makes special efforts to provide advanced care to minority and underserved groups. Can you paint a picture of what cancer care was like for those communities before its establishment?
Dr. Gina Villani: Cancer care for underserved communities was traditionally delivered in hospital clinics by fellows in training, who were supervised by a senior physician. Many times patients would see a different doctor each time they came. Clinics would have long wait times and a drab physical environment that was hopeless and depressing. With little preventive care available, cancer patients would first seek treatment late in their disease and typically [at] an emergency room.

Death rates from cancer for minorities have traditionally exceeded those for whites. Although there may be patient-related issues that contribute, the health care system in general has a long history of disenfranchising minority patients and no doubt has contributed to their seeking treatment at a later stage and having higher death rates. The RL Center showed the medical establishment that underserved populations deserve quality care in a clean and beautiful environment and set the bar for other minority-serving institutions.


The RL Center is located in East Harlem. Can you share the basis of the decision to locate it there?
The center was established in East Harlem as Department of Health statistics showed that death rates from breast cancer were significantly higher in that area than in the rest of New York City.

Does the RL Center serve patients from beyond the immediate neighborhood? What is its catchment area?
Patients come from all over. We welcome anyone whom others do not want to care for. As much as we are and want to be a resource for this community, we also want to care for anyone who feels they are underserved. Health disparities affect not only racial and ethnic minorities but also the physically and mentally disabled, the LGBT community and the poor and underinsured.

Inside the RL Center: Ralph Lauren Home furnishings make for a far-from-institutional feel

 

How does the RL Center differ from a regular clinic?
We spend time with people. We want to educate them. We are not a clinic; we are a center that wants to embrace the whole person in the context of their life and assist in whatever areas they need help. We provide financial counseling and psychosocial counseling and even have a food pantry for patients receiving chemo.

“We are not a clinic; we are a center that wants to embrace the whole person in the context of their life and assist in whatever areas they need help.”

You’ve mentioned that health disparities are a particular problem, but can you list some of the reasons for those disparities and what the implications are?
We live in a country that does not view health care as a basic human right. We refuse to accept the notion of universal coverage. Racism, poverty, lack of education, unemployment, housing and environmental injustice—these are the social determinants of health, and until we fix all these problems, health disparities will continue to exist.

You have an outstanding record in community and minority health care in New York City. Can you share some of your motivations and your inspiration?
I am so far from a religious person, but I love the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I have had so many advantages just because. That just doesn’t seem fair!

Is there any advice you can pass on to all of us regarding our own cancer-risk reduction? What should everyone be doing?
Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce, exercise and stop sweating the small stuff.

 
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRUCE INFANTINO
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN
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Gina Villani​​​