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Harvard medical students, doctors urge cancellation of fund-raiser at Mar-a-Lago

The Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images/file 2016

Hundreds of medical students, doctors, and other medical personnel opposed to President Trump’s immigration order are urging the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to cancel a lavish fund-raiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.

But even as the number of signatures on a circulating petition grew — rising to 1,206 caregivers in Boston and across the United States by 9:20 a.m. Wednesday — Dana-Farber said it would not risk losing money earmarked for cancer research and treatment by canceling the fund-raiser.

Donors are paying as much as $100,000 to attend the fund-raiser on Feb. 18 at the 20-acre seaside resort in Palm Beach. Dana-Farber raised $2.2 million at last year’s Mar-a-Lago gala, which featured a concert by James Taylor, according to a video on the hospital’s website.


The objections to the fund-raiser are an example of the fallout over Trump’s order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries — restrictions that have prompted protests across the country.

Six medical students and one doctor e-mailed a letter Sunday to Dana-Farber president Dr. Laurie Glimcher and development head Susan Paresky. They said Trump’s immigration order threatens the medical school’s research program, poses a risk to overseas patients who need cancer treatment at Dana-Farber, and “is a direct threat to the health and well-being of thousands of refugees worldwide who are fleeing violence and persecution.’’

Two Iranian medical researchers headed for Brigham and Women’s Hospital were barred from entering the country after the ban went into effect. And the medical school’s teaching hospitals are scrambling to determine whether patients from the seven targeted countries will be able to keep appointments for medical care.

When the group did not get a reply to their letter, they began circulating a petition on social media at 6 p.m. Monday, said organizer George Karandinos, a Harvard medical and doctoral student.


“Given the events of recent days,’’ he said, “we are asking Dana-Farber to take some moral leadership on this.’’

Karandinos, who grew up in Houston and is the son of Greek immigrants, said he and the other authors of the letter sympathize with Dana-Farber’s mission. “Our goal is not to shame or guilt or antagonize but to create a discussion,’’ he said. Ultimately, though, the group wants the hospital to move the fund-raiser to a new location.

“We realize it’s a difficult thing to ask,’’ he said. “We don’t believe these are normal circumstances. Holding the fund-raiser amounts to at least some sort of validation of the Trump Organization and the Trump presidency.’’

On Tuesday afternoon, Glimcher and Josh Bekenstein, chairman of Dana-Farber’s board of trustees, responded to the group in writing that they sympathize with their concerns, but that it is essentially too late to cancel the event, which had been planned many months in advance.

“Cancer knows no national boundaries, and we share your concern about the effect of the new executive order on immigration on our staff and patients,’’ they replied.

They said scientists, clinicians, students, and staff from other countries have contributed greatly to the hospital’s work fighting cancer — and will continue to do so.

“It is also imperative that we are able to care for people for whom advanced cancer care is not available locally, and to train people to bring the latest techniques and therapies back to their home countries,’’ Glimcher and Bekenstein said.


Even so, “contracts have been signed, and a large number of people have committed to attend. Cancelling the event outright would only deny much-needed resources for research and care,’’ they said.

Harvard Medical School did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment from dean George Daley. Harvard University did not respond to a request for comment from president Drew Faust.

The price tag to attend Dana-Farber’s 26th annual Discovery Celebration in Palm Beach starts at $1,250 for one seat at the event, which includes an “elegant evening of dinner, excitement,’’ and a special performance by Emmy-award winning musician David Foster.

The top contribution of $100,000 buys 10 seats at the celebration and two seats at a dinner the night before, billed as “an intimate evening with Dana-Farber physicians and guest speaker, international journalist and author, Tom Brokaw,’’ according to the hospital’s website.

In a tweet before he took office, Trump described writing his inaugural address at Mar-a-Lago, which he called “the Winter White House.’’

In recent days, the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio has become embroiled in a similar controversy, according to a story by the online health care publication STAT. The hospital said it would proceed with plans for a fund-raiser Feb. 25 at Mar-a-Lago despite a Sudanese resident physician being barred from the United States because of Trump’s executive order, and two other residents being detained for hours at a US airport.

Like Dana-Farber, the Cleveland hospital has held fund-raising events at the Trump resort for years. Many hospitals hold events in that region, where wealthy donors retire or spend the winter.


This year’s Cleveland Clinic ball is called “Reflections of Versailles: A Night in the Hall of Mirrors.’’ For $100,000 a diamond benefactor buys admission to the event as well as other perks such as attendance at a Neiman Marcus fashion show and a full page in the “Ball Journal.’’

Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil said the fund-raiser brings in money for a good cause — cardiology services in Florida — and is not intended as a political statement. Still, she said the hospital is not committing to future fund-raisers at the Trump resort.

“We will probably consider having it elsewhere in the future,’’ Sheil said. “We have gotten a lot of feedback from concerned people in our communities.’’

Contacted by the Globe, a woman who answered the phone at the resort said she could not provide information on events. “You’d have to call the White House,’’ said the woman, who declined to provide her full name. Asked if there had been any cancellations, she said “everything is still a go.’’ A White House spokeswoman said such questions are handled by The Trump Organization, not the White House. The organization did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.

Hospitals across the country are still assessing the impact of the immigration restrictions on employees and patients. Trump’s policy bars the entry of nationals from the seven countries for 90 days and temporarily suspends the country’s refugee program.


Massachusetts General Hospital said it has five researchers who may not be able to travel to Boston from the countries impacted by the ban — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The hospital also has eight patients from those countries who have scheduled or requested appointments in the next three months.

Over the weekend, Samira Asgari, who is Iranian, was barred from entering the United States to begin her postdoctoral research on tuberculosis at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Seyed Soheil Saeedi Saravi, also from Iran, had planned to begin postdoctoral research on cardiovascular disease at Brigham and Women’s hospital, but had his visa suspended for three months.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.