Leading Ladies Look to Put Transplant Research in the Spotlight

Through a unique blend of philanthropy and show business, a South Florida nonprofit organization aims to increase its efforts to raise funds and awareness for the field of transplantation, a cause that the Leading Ladies have supported for more than 20 years. Despite the progress that’s been made during that time, the group’s members are more determined than ever to keep the spotlight on the need for additional research.

“When we started in 1995, no one really knew much about transplantation,” said Phyllis Green, a founding member and past president of Leading Ladies. “But now it seems almost everyone knows someone that has had, or needs, a transplant. It is a life-saving procedure that has become much more mainstream, but there is still a long way to go.”

For many years, Leading Ladies directed its efforts primarily toward providing support for transplant patients, contributing more than $1.5 million to the Transplant Foundation. In recent years, their focus changed and they became sponsors of Research MTI, the research initiative of the Miami Transplant Institute, a joint program between the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“Organizations like Leading Ladies are fantastic partners with us,” said Rodrigo Vianna, M.D., Ph.D., professor of surgery and the director of transplant services. “As we grow, and further our research, their support is essential in finding new opportunities to change the way we do organ transplantation, with the promise of being able to help save millions of lives.”

Every year, the group’s more than 300 members host a series of fundraisers, including an annual black tie event. This year’s gala, “Wish Upon a Star,” will be held February 19 at Temple Solel in Hollywood.

The highlight of the group’s events is the professional entertainment, often delivered by the members themselves, but at other times nationally known acts have performed, including The Osmonds, The Four Aces, John Davidson, JoAnn Worley, Peter Marshall, Charlie Callas, Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence, Norm Crosby, Don Cornell, Donna Theodore, Dick Capri, Sal Richards, Sarge, Steve Solomon, and Lenny Rush, all provided compliments of Don Casino Productions.

“This has always been what’s helped us to stand out,” said Green, a retired singer and comedian who performed on cruise ships and in condominium clubhouses. “We put on a professional show, from the entertainment to the sound system to the spotlight, and every other aspect.”

Leading Ladies was founded in 1995 when the late Barbara Krongold and Mary Ortman established a social organization with a group of their friends, all of whom had entertainment backgrounds and links to show business. One of them was Candi Casino, who, along with her late husband, Don, ran Don Casino Productions, a cruise line talent-booking agency. It was Candi’s suggestion that the new group adopt a worthwhile cause to support.

They chose to support the transplant field, motivated primarily by Casino, who had developed an interest in transplantation after her son, Barry, was diagnosed with a liver ailment which, had it progressed, would have required a transplant. To this day, he remains transplant free, but the mission to support transplant medicine and research continued to be a priority.

Now they host as many as seven luncheons a year, featuring song and dance acts, comedians, ventriloquists, and salutes to favorite entertainers like Cole Porter. In addition to entertainment, the luncheons also feature raffles, auctions, presentations by world-renowned MTI surgeons, and visits from grateful patients.

The group is now under the leadership of Jackie Edwards, who became president in mid-2016.

Though not an entertainer, Edwards joined Leading Ladies six years ago after her husband, Don Edwards, a piano conductor, performed for the group.

“I saw such a passion for what the Leading Ladies do and who they want to help,” said Edwards. “I was all in.”

As president, she is hoping that with a little business know-how, Leading Ladies will expand beyond its showbiz roots, and welcome new members from all walks of life.

“We have the potential to help so many people who are in need of a transplant,” Edwards said. “My legacy for this organization is to make us a force that everyone knows.”

The Miami Transplant Institute is one of the largest and most comprehensive transplant centers in the world, performing more than 500 adult and pediatric transplant procedures annually. Its programs are recognized among the top in kidney, liver, and pancreas transplants.

In 2015, the leadership of MTI announced a new commitment – Research MTI – which is dedicated to growing and maintaining a robust research enterprise. Today, researchers are addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing transplant patients, including increasing organ availability and quality, and the promising work being conducted in the field of regenerative medicine.

Vianna estimates that in the United States alone, there are more than 120,000 people on a transplant waiting list.

“When we can fix the organ shortage, we will almost change the history of medicine,” said Vianna, who is chief of liver and GI transplantation at UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital. “It is impossible to overstate the impact and presence that groups like Leading Ladies have in helping us move toward that goal.”

Novel immunosuppressive treatments are also being explored that hold the promise of a better quality of life for patients after transplantation by reducing the side effects of medications, and the incidence of transplant rejection. Researchers are also looking for ways to improve immunity tolerance. By applying the latest research findings and using the best traditions of clinical medicine, MTI is vowing to remain a leader in transplantation medicine.

“It’s very exciting. I think we are going to do something great here,” said Vianna.

The “Wish Upon a Star” gala will be held Sunday, February 19, beginning at 5 p.m. at Temple Solel in Hollywood, honoring South Florida entertainers “Mark and Rodi.” The featured performer is comedian Richie Minnervini. Tickets are $125 per person.

For more information about the event, or for general questions about Leading Ladies and membership in the organization, email Jackie Edwards at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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