$1 million estate gift will benefit medical students

By Robb Crouch

When C. J. LaBenz, MD, of Omaha gathered with his 1975 UNMC College of Medicine classmates at their 15th graduation reunion, he encouraged them to mark their legacy together by gifting a scholarship fund to help future medical students.

The class took the opportunity also to honor former internal medicine professor and UNMC College of Medicine alumnus Mary Jo Henn, MD. She had served as an instructor and mentor to many of them, as well as other medical student classes, during her time on the university faculty and as assistant dean of students.

With their combined gifts, they established the UNMC Class of 1975 Mary Jo Henn Memorial Scholarship Fund as a permanent endowment at the University of Nebraska Foundation to support generations of medical students. Even after its creation in 1990, many class members have continued to support the fund, sometimes on an annual basis.

Now, through a planned estate gift, Dr. LaBenz bequeathed more than $1 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation for the scholarship fund following his death last year.

“With this generous increase, the endowment will now allow the College of Medicine to distribute about $45,000 annually in scholarship aid to multiple students,” said Brian Anderson, senior director of development for the UNMC College of Medicine. “As the class of 1975 originally directed, the scholarship benefits students in the college who have significant academic accomplishments and financial need.”

Danielle Dircks of Omaha is a recent recipient of the scholarship. She was notified of the award last summer before starting medical school at a time when, like many, she was concerned about whether she’d survive the demands of medical school.

“Receiving this scholarship was an excellent reminder, not only of all the hard work that led me to where I was, but also of the extensive resources available to me throughout my journey to become a physician,” Dircks said. “At the beginning of my first year, the words ‘imposter syndrome’ were tossed around a lot, referring to the feeling that many first-year medical students experience that they are not good enough and not meant to be there. Well, one of my big reminders that I am where I am supposed to be is receiving such a generous scholarship. I am very grateful.”

George W. Orr, MD, a longtime friend to Dr. LaBenz and his medical practice partner, said Dr. LaBenz was a strong advocate of the university and that he knew Dr. Henn personally.

“He knew Mary Jo and liked her very well,” said Dr. Orr, who graduated from the UNMC College of Medicine in 1962. “He always held an interest in medical school education and encouraged his classmates to set up this scholarship fund. I think he received some support as he went through medical school, and he was always in contact with the university and always thought very highly of it. He enjoyed participating in activities at the medical center throughout his lifetime.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State College, Dr. LaBenz studied medicine at UNMC, graduating in 1975. Following his residency, he went into obstetrics and gynecology practice in Omaha. He died on Aug. 11, 2021, at age 73.

About Dr. Henn

Mary Jo Henn, MD, received an undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska in 1940 and a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1944. In 1950, she graduated from the UNMC College of Medicine. She completed a residency at the Mayo Clinic and then joined the UNMC College of Medicine faculty as an instructor in the Department of Internal Medicine. In 1963, she was appointed associate professor and assistant dean of students. She was promoted to full professor in 1970 and retired in 1979 because of health problems. She died in 1981 at age 62.

The Kizer Ripple Effect

By Connie White

Inspired by her dad’s MS diagnosis, UNMC student raises funds for research in hopes of someday finding a cure.

Taylor Kizer wants to start a ripple. “Enough ripples can start a wave,” the 24-year-old says.

Taylor’s hope is that a wave of research can someday bring a cure to her dad. 

Taylor Kizer

Lance Kizer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2015 at the start of Taylor’s senior year at Overton High School, which is about 25 miles west of Kearney. 

On vacation in California with his wife, Lance noticed that his leg began to drag as he tired while walking on the beach. He had experienced other symptoms back home in Nebraska: weakness in his legs and trouble with balance and coordination. Lance went to see an orthopedist and then a neurologist. After undergoing a spinal tap and an MRI, Lance learned his diagnosis. 

“None of us was super sure what multiple sclerosis was,” Taylor said, recalling her family’s reaction.
But Taylor knew this: There is no cure.

Taylor set out to learn all she could about the chronic neurological disease while raising funds to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Research and Education Fund at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Taylor and her best friend Sidney Enochs organized a “Take the Shot for MS” basketball tournament at their high school. The “shot” referred to more than just basketball. At the time, Lance was giving himself three injections a week to treat his symptoms. Nine teams signed up, and Taylor and Sidney netted $4,000 in donations.

Taylor and Sidney weren’t done. 

After graduating, the two friends enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. With the help of family, friends, the community of Overton and the surrounding central Nebraska towns, Taylor and Sidney put on three more basketball tournaments and a sand volleyball tournament. They also hosted a 30-mile bike ride between Overton and Kearney. In 2020, when COVID-19 shut down in-person events, Taylor and Sidney sent out donation packets. Their 2022 fundraiser was another sand volleyball tournament, held July 9 in Kearney. 

Before the July event, approximately $33,000 had been donated to the UNMC fund through Taylor and Sidney’s fundraising and other donations sent on behalf of the Kizer family.

Rana Zabad, M.D., chief of the multiple sclerosis/neuroimmunology division in UNMC’s Department of Neurological Sciences, said Taylor’s fundraising is critical to advancing the program’s goals.

“Within the last quarter of a century, the science of multiple sclerosis and similar conditions has gone through unprecedented growth in all scientific aspects of the disease, resulting in an earlier diagnosis of MS and similar conditions,” Dr. Zabad said.

The UNMC fund supports training and a fellowship program to prepare the next generation of interested neurologists and psychiatrists to care for people with MS and to conduct research. She said a rise in the prevalence of MS in the United States and worldwide has led to increased demand for neurologists specializing in MS. 

And while great strides are being made, treatment and diagnostic gaps exist, including understanding the disease’s “fingerprints” through biomarkers, blood tests or tests of other bodily fluids to allow for earlier diagnosis, managing treatments for long-term safety, reaching MS patients in rural and urban areas, and researching cheaper treatment options. 

“With the proven benefit of early treatment and the availability of 23 FDA-approved disease-modifying therapies and counting, there is a pressing need to train more providers with expertise in the accurate diagnosis, earlier treatment and management of treatments’ side effects,” Dr. Zabad said.

MS occurs when the immune system attacks the nerve fibers and the myelin, the protective layer insulating healthy nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Each patient reacts differently, with some having minimal to no symptoms, others mildly to moderately impacted and a third group with significant limitations. 

Because of the treatments now available, Dr. Zabad said the disease’s effects can be somewhat mitigated. However, MS still impacts the employment, family and social life of a sizeable group of patients.

Lance, a veterinarian in Overton, is among 4,000 patients being actively followed through UNMC’s multiple sclerosis program.

He says his symptoms have progressed as he expected over the past seven years.
He now uses a walking stick and has lost dexterity in his fingers. “One arm is less useful than it was before,” Lance says.

If he gets a fever, like he did when he had COVID-19 last fall, he can barely walk. 

He has cut back his work schedule to part time because of the physical demands of working with large animals.
Lance, 54, attends weekly physical therapy sessions and does balance and stretching exercises at home. Under the care of Dr. Zabad, he comes to Nebraska Medicine in Omaha every six months to receive infusions.

He’s grateful for the care he has received, noting that Dr. Zabad is always willing to spend whatever time it takes to answer questions from him or his wife, Sue. 

Sue says her family, which also includes two sons, gets through the tough days with the support of family and friends and their faith.

“You do learn to take it one day at a time. One minute, one hour,” she says. “I wish we knew what the future held.”
Lance and Sue Kizer say they are proud of their daughter’s fundraising efforts but say they’re not surprised. Once she gets an idea, Taylor is determined to see it through. 

“This is one way she can help me directly,” Lance says. 

Lance’s diagnosis also influenced Taylor’s choice of profession. After earning a degree in health sciences from UNK in 2020, she enrolled in UNMC’s physician assistant program. She expects to graduate in December and hopes to eventually return to the Kearney area to practice medicine. 

Tayler says she has been fortunate to meet other families coping with MS through the fundraisers. Donations often are made on behalf of someone with MS. Taylor says she tries to inspire hope because living with a chronic disease like MS can cause people to lose hope.

“We’ve just been able to spread a lot of awareness for multiple sclerosis,” she says.

Dr. Zabad called Taylor a “rising health care advocate.” 

“Taylor’s fundraising put Nebraska on the map of MS centers of excellence that offer fellowships,” Dr. Zabad said. “I trust that Taylor will continue to partner with us. She and her family have been of great help to their community raising awareness about the disease and encouraging patients to seek a second opinion and care at UNMC. Taylor’s work enables us to think over and over about our priority — patients first.” 

To learn more about the multiple sclerosis program at UNMC, click here.