Boston Medical Center has received a $25 million gift, the largest in its history, and plans to use the money to fight what it calls the “heartbreaking” public health crisis caused by drug addiction and the opioid epidemic.
The donation to BMC, which serves more low-income patients than any other medical facility in New England, will create the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, named after billionaire investor and South Shore native John Grayken and his wife, Eilene.
In disclosing their gift, the couple said they usually do charitable giving anonymously, but are going public to destigmatize addiction and encourage others to follow their lead.
Because of the shame that’s often associated with drug abuse, “we have not seen private philanthropy in the addiction space to the extent we see it in other areas of health care, like cancer,” said Michael Botticelli, who worked closely with BMC in his former roles as White House drug czar and head of the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.
“There’s an idea that people with substance-abuse disorders are somehow less deserving of care and treatment and compassion . . . and issues of addiction can be seen as unpopular programs for unpopular people,” he added. “So this family’s donation is particularly important, because they want to be open about who they are to spur other philanthropy in this space.”
Located near Boston’s notorious Methadone Mile, a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue where drug dealers openly ply their trade alongside treatment clinics, BMC is already considered a national leader in addiction issues. Hospital officials hope the Grayken Center will elevate the facility into a premier clearinghouse for drug research, treatment, training, and prevention.
Eilene Grayken, 44, said in a phone interview that BMC’s underdog status and vulnerable patient population factored into their decision to support the hospital.
She also said drug addiction has touched their lives.
“I don’t want to go into details, but it’s something that our immediate family and extended family have had experience of,” she said. “This is a disease that doesn’t respect gender, class, social status, or money. It can literally be anybody susceptible to this.”
Yet “there are still people who are judgmental,” added Grayken, a UK native, who plans to speak about the donation at a BMC event Monday that will also be attended by Senator Ed Markey, Governor Charlie Baker, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
“That’s why I thought, OK, it would be more helpful for us to be out there and have our names and our reason known,” she said. “There are a lot of high-profile, wealthy people who have the means to help, and I wanted to encourage people in that bracket to come forward.”
Boston Medical Center president and chief executive Kate Walsh called the couple’s gift a game changer for philanthropy in Boston “because it brings addiction medicine out of the philanthropic shadows.”
The opioid epidemic, blamed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 33,000 overdose deaths in the country last year, has not spared Massachusetts. Public health officials say nearly 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the state in 2016, five times more than in car crashes.
Opioids such as heroin and the prescription painkillers fetanyl and oxycodone are responsible for most overdoses, and another 20 million people in the United States suffer from drug abuse or addiction, according to federal data.
“This is a public health crisis, and it’s heartbreaking,” said Walsh. “Kids and parents are struggling with this, and so many people have been in recovery and relapsed.”
Opioid abuse is so prevalent that the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, near BMC’s campus, opened a room last year where drug users can ride out their highs under medical supervision, with the aim of preventing deaths.
BMC was introduced to the Graykens by a former board member, Susan Donahue, who cochairs its ongoing capital campaign. The couple toured the facility in December and were particularly interested in its addiction work.
Walsh said she “hadn’t even fantasized” about a gift as large as the Graykens’, noting that BMC had calculated it would take $15 million to endow an addiction medicine center.
“So when the $25 million figure came through, I literally gave what I’m sure was not a very attractive happy dance!” Walsh recalled. “I hope I’m not on somebody’s videotape, but it was so enormously gratifying.”
Previously, the largest contributions to the hospital were two $15 million donations: from the Yawkey Foundation in 2003 for the Moakley Cancer Care Building, and from the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Foundation in 2008 for the Shapiro Ambulatory Care Center.
By contrast, the largest gift to Massachusetts General Hospital is $100 million, made in 2009 by Phillip and Susan Ragon, owners of the Cambridge software firm InterSystems.
Although BMC might seem a natural beneficiary of philanthropy — more than half its patients are low-income, and it is heavily reliant on government subsidies — it lags most other Boston-area hospitals in fund-raising.
That’s largely because BMC rarely benefits from what’s known as grateful patient syndrome, in which people appreciative of the care they receive later make contributions to express their gratitude. It’s not that BMC doesn’t have grateful patients; it’s that it has few thankful patients with money to donate.
John Grayken, 60, has an estimated net worth of $6.5 billion, according to Forbes.
He grew up in Cohasset, where he still has relatives; has four children; went to Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge; earned an MBA from Harvard Business School; and made his fortune through distressed investing, or buying companies and assets in financial trouble, such as delinquent home mortgages.
In 1995, Grayken founded Dallas-based Lone Star Funds. His companies have been investigated by the New York attorney general for their handling of delinquent mortgages, and a Lone Star executive in South Korea went to prison for stock fraud. In a rare interview with a German publication, John Grayken said his companies always “adhere to applicable laws.”
The Graykens split their time between London, where their primary home is, and Boston, although they can only be in the United States about four months a year, because John Grayken renounced his US citizenship in the 1990s for tax purposes and now has European citizenship.
Still, last year the couple bought the 13,000-square-foot penthouse in Boston’s 60-story Millennium Tower for $35 million. They also own a small island off the coast of Cohasset, called White Head, in addition to a $70 million home in London and other properties.
Because the Graykens say they make the majority of their donations anonymously, the full extent of their charitable giving is not known.
“From a standpoint of philanthropy in Boston, I really think it’s a game-changer,” Walsh, BMC’s chief executive, said of the couple’s gift, “because it brings addiction medicine out of the philanthropic shadows.”
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SachaPfeiffer.