Tomma and Bob Hargraves started their UNC journey in 1996 as “parents of a Carolina boy.” It was that same Carolina boy, now a physician in Georgia, who sent Tomma back to UNC 10 years later when she was diagnosed with stage 3B lung cancer. Tomma vividly recalls her son Josh’s reply when she told him her diagnosis. “He told me to get to a teaching hospital because that’s where the innovation is,” she says.
Tomma enrolled in a UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center clinical trial requiring nine months of high dosage chemotherapy, even higher doses of radiation, and oral medication. The treatment was grueling, but it led her into remission. The cancer reappeared three years later and Tomma returned to UNC Lineberger for additional treatment. Once there was no evidence of the disease, she considered the ways she could give back to UNC Hospitals, ultimately training to become a patient navigator for UNC Lineberger.
Bob Hargraves also gave back by finding a special connection to UNC Hospitals. Bob had started playing Santa Claus at various events in 2005 after a child remarked on his likeness to Mr. Claus. When Tomma went into remission, Bob surprised her by volunteering at UNC Hospitals with his hobby. “I needed to do something to thank UNC for saving my wife’s life,” he says. His thanks took the form of a Carolina blue Santa suit in the pediatric oncology unit.
Soon, Bob would thank UNC for transforming his life. In the summer of 2014, he and Tomma noticed that he was slurring his words and shuffling his feet. The symptoms became particularly acute one night that December while at dinner – Bob recalls that his hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t eat his meal. An ER visit ruled out a stroke or seizure, and after a six-month process of elimination he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Bob was initially able to control symptoms through oral medication, but after a four-year cycle of symptom recurrence and medication adjustment, Bob and Tomma decided to explore surgical treatment.
In May 2019, UNC physicians Richard Murrow and Eldad Hadar performed deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery on Bob. This involved implanting electrodes on targeted areas of Bob’s brain and then placing a neurostimulator, or brain pacemaker, that sends electrical impulses to the electrodes.
“DBS is an exciting therapy as it can make a big difference in a patient’s quality of life. It makes it fun for me to come to work every day when you see you can make a difference,” says Dr. Murrow, the Joseph and Hannah Baggett Distinguished Professor in the UNC Department of Neurology and Medical Director for DBS therapy.
Dr. Murrow’s research focuses on the precise mechanism of action of DBS, hoping that elaboration of this mechanism will lead to improved forms of treatment and a more fundamental understanding of the human nervous system in general. He stresses that philanthropic funding for this research is incredibly important – without it, progress is very difficult.
“I am very excited about what the future holds for neuroscience and am hopeful that my work will contribute to further improvements in care,” Dr. Murrow says. “I have been very fortunate; many of the patients that I have had the privilege of caring for over the years have supported my research by making philanthropic donations.”
In the seven months since his surgery, Bob and Tomma have seen a dramatic difference. Bob’s fine motor skills have improved drastically, and he even attends boxing classes three times a week. One of Bob’s motivators for pursuing the deep brain stimulation surgery was a concern that Parkinson’s would mean the end of his Santa Claus career. Although he is now taking it easy and only committing to playing Santa at a few fundraisers this season, he is grateful to UNC for enabling him to continue bringing cheer to the pediatric oncology unit and beyond.
The Hargraves stress the importance of giving back by volunteering, saying they hope that those with whom they connect at the hospital get as much joy and satisfaction out of the experience as they do. They also emphasize that when it comes to philanthropic support, every gift counts regardless of size.
“While not wealthy people, we always find ways to support different causes and events at UNC Medicine with donations every year, and plan to designate financial support via our wills and financial planner,” Tomma says. “Supporting research in both lung cancer and Parkinson’s Disease is high on our priorities.”
Above all, the Hargraves want people to know that supporting medical research, both financially and as a volunteer, is not just a donation of time and money, but an investment.
“What happened to us could happen to anyone,” Tomma says.
To make a gift or for more information, please contact Aron Johnson, Director of Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-843-9902