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VCU Health expands care for lung disease, thanks to gift from a grateful patient

A generous $5 million donation from a VCU Health patient with pulmonary fibrosis will help hundreds of people with lung disease.

Bill Belanich on a walking trail Bill Belanich during one of his daily walks

Nearly 37 million Americans live with a chronic lung disease. At a time when a respiratory virus is plaguing the globe, protecting our lungs is more important than ever.

Longtime VCU Health patient Bill Belanich knows firsthand the impact that expert research and treatment can have in restoring healthy lung function. Suffering from pulmonary fibrosis — when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred, making it difficult to breathe — Belanich donated $5 million to ensure more VCU Health patients with lung disease can experience the high level of care he received.

“Mr. Belanich’s gift will have an enormous impact on the health of hundreds, maybe thousands of individuals,” said Dr. Alpha A. “Berry” Fowler III, the pulmonary disease and critical care medicine doctor who has treated Belanich for many years. “His gift will enable us to further grow the influence of VCU Health’s division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine throughout Central Virginia, as we care for some of the sickest individuals in the state.”

Expanding the care we provide

The gift will support specialty care for patients with all types of lung disease, including interstitial lung disease (ILD), pulmonary hypertension, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer and other conditions requiring lung transplantation.

VCU Health will also recruit additional doctors, initiate new programs and grow services already offered, such as:

  • Interstitial Lung Disease Clinic – A program that provides timely diagnosis, expert treatment and supportive care for complex lung disorders
  • Adult Cystic Fibrosis Center – A center dedicated to providing disease management of patients with cystic fibrosis in Virginia and bordering states
  • Interventional Pulmonology Program – The state’s largest and most comprehensive interventional pulmonology service, providing advanced, minimally invasive procedures to diagnose and treat disorders of the lungs and airways
  • Pulmonary Hypertension Program – A comprehensive program of pulmonary specialists and specially trained nurses to treat people with increased pressure in their pulmonary arteries.
  • Lung Cancer Screening Clinic – A weekly clinic that screens patients at risk for lung cancer having abnormal chest imaging
  • Asthma Case Management Center – A program that provides comprehensive care for patients with severe asthma by doctors who specialize in asthma care

“At VCU Health, we advance cutting edge clinical care, complete trials of new therapies to treat severe lung disease, and help educate our physicians who will provide outstanding care for patients and families in Richmond and beyond,” said Dr. Patricia Sime, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at VCU Health. “Support from generous donors like Mr. Belanich and others will help us save lives and develop the research needed to find cures.”

Paving the way for future doctors and research

Belanich’s donation will establish the William Belanich Endowment Fund at the VCU School of Medicine. In addition to patient care, the fund will support faculty development, recruitment and retention, education and research in the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine.

“We will be able to provide our medical students, medical residents and our fellowship trainees with an incredible array of educational opportunities,” said Fowler. “These people are the future of medicine, and will be able to bring the latest and greatest care to patients with adult CF, pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung diseases and pulmonary fibrosis.”

A life full of twists and turns

Belanich has worked in the construction industry since he was a teenager.

After escaping Yugoslavia in the 1950s, Belanich began his decades-long career by installing asbestos in commercial and industrial sites. Belanich continued on as an insulations journeyman at Waco, Inc., removing toxic building material from offices, hospitals, schools and industrial sites — ultimately working his way up to become president of the company.

Unfortunately, decades of asbestos exposure led to lung damage. And in 2017, the longtime VCU Health patient — who previously received treatment for sciatica, acoustic neuroma and cardiovascular issues — knew exactly where he was going.

“People often go to the doctor and they hear a referral and don’t do any further research,” Belanich said. “If I am going to do anything with doctors when I need specialists, I do some research. I always have and I always will, and I follow wherever that takes me. In Richmond, VCU is blessed with many of the best doctors.”

For four years, Belanich has been working with Dr. Fowler to treat his pulmonary fibrosis. Despite his lung condition, the 80-year-old walks four miles every day.

Grateful for his treatment and the freedom it enables him, Belanich made a generous $5 million gift in 2020 to help VCU Health improve the lives of people battling all types of lung conditions.

“We are grateful to Mr. Belanich for this transformative gift,” said Dr. Patrick Nana-Sinkam, chair of the division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine. “This will allow us to build the infrastructure required to make connections between outstanding clinical care and the research that seeks to address unanswered questions for our patients suffering from lung disease.”

To read more about Mr. Belanich’s medical journey and the impact he will have, read this article in the MCV Foundation Chronicle of Giving magazine.