U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Floor Colloquy: Senators Coons, Paul honor the work of Dr. Sandy Greenberg to end blindness by 2020

As Delivered on December 12, 2012

Senator Coons: Mr. President, I rise today to join with my colleague, Senator Paul, to discuss the life and work of an exceptional American, Dr. Sandy Greenberg, who is here with us today in the Senate Gallery, along with his wife Sue and his sister Brenda even as we speak.

Sandy, in my view, is an honorary Delawarean, because he spends a month every year at one of our most beautiful beaches, Rehoboth Beach. But he is much more than that. A successful businessman and philanthropist, Sandy has a wide variety of interests and life experiences. He has founded and run software and technology companies, he is a pioneer in the use of technology in medicine, and helped bring telemedicine to rural health care facilities as chairman of the Rural Health Care Corporation.

He was appointed by President Clinton to the Board of the National Science Foundation. As a young man he took a break from his studies at Columbia, where he roomed with Art Garfunkel--a well-known musician--to work as a fellow in Lyndon Johnson's White House.

All of this on its own merits would make for a life well-lived and a substantive, meaningful contribution to our country. But there is one thing I have not yet mentioned. At the young age of 19, Sandy went blind. He lost his sight, and with that all likely hope of the successful completion of his college career or a successful career in life. He was told by the social workers who met with him after glaucoma stole his sight from him that his future would likely consist of assembling screwdriver kits in a sheltered workshop in his hometown in upstate New York.

But it’s because of the kindness and the intervention of his roommates--Art Garfunkel and Jerry Speyer --and others who volunteered—Mike Mukasey -- who dedicated countless hours to reading to him, he was able to finish his class work, to be successful in completing his studies at Columbia, and then to go on to Harvard Law School and to Oxford, and then to go further and further.

He has lived his entire adult life and achieved a career most of us can only dream of while also plunged in darkness. His exceptional courage and his perseverance don't end there. Today he wants to serve others and catalyze a transformative shift in the health of our nation by ending blindness by the end of this decade.

Is this outrageous? Is this audacious? Maybe. But that is what experts said when President Kennedy stood before this Congress--in the same year, 1961, that Sandy lost his sight—stood before this Congress and challenged our nation to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade. The best and brightest minds, the top scientists and researchers of President Kennedy's generation rose to that challenge and achieved his impossible dream. Now, for this generation, Sandy and his wife Sue have once again raised our sights and challenged the best scientific and medical researchers in the world to rise to an enormous challenge--a challenge that has been with us from the beginning of mankind.

In the Bible itself we hear of blindness, of people who could not see with their eyes but only their hearts. For millennia, humanity has struggled to understand and to overcome blindness. Yet today we have the scientific tools necessary to reach for a cure--to restore the physical sight so many of us take for granted to those who otherwise live in darkness; to bring to the light the 39 million people in this world who live without sight, many in the world's poorest countries, at a time when experts already believe 80 percent of blindness can be prevented or cured.

We know we can do it. Just think of what an awe-inspiring accomplishment this would be, what a triumph of the human mind, of individual initiative, of collaborative efforts of the scientific method, of modern technology, and of our investment in the belief that America can and should be a world leader in curing the diseases that have ailed humanity for generations.

Mr. President, a majority of all research scientists in human history are alive today. That remarkable fact alone carries with it great potential. That is why Sandy and his wife Sue created the Prize to End Blindness by 2020, to take advantage of this incredible historic opportunity to bring together scientists and researchers and end blindness by the end of this decade. To inspire them, the Greenbergs have provided a prize of more than $2 million in gold. Why gold? Well, it is a reminder of the color of the beautiful shimmering sunsets Sandy and Susan enjoyed together in the waning days of Sandy's sightedness, and it is a reminder of the beauty of the challenge of a prize to restore sight to millions who live in blindness.

Mr. President, I am no expert on the health or science of the eye, but we are blessed to have in this Senate two members who are. We had some supportive comments that will be given by Senator Boozman of Arkansas, but I am particularly glad and honored to be joined today by Senator Paul, by Dr. Paul, who is not only a tireless advocate for the people of Kentucky, but who, by professional training and background, is an ophthalmologist.

And I’d like to yield the floor to him at this time.

Senator Paul: Thank you, Senator Coons, for inviting me, both figuratively and literally, across the aisle to join him on this side--I am glad to be here today--and for introducing me to this prize that Sandy Greenberg has brought forward to end blindness.

I am an eye surgeon. I have also done research on glaucoma and have been a longtime member of Lions Club International, whose primary research and primary goal is the prevention of blindness.

One of the heroes to the Lions' eye movement and to our work worldwide on blindness has been Helen Keller who, at the age of 19 months, lost not only her vision but her hearing. In 1925, she came to the Lions Club International with this mandate--and this is part of her speech from that day:

She wrote: “You have heard how through a little word dropped from the fingers of another, a ray of light from another soul touched the darkness of my mind and I found myself, found the world, found God. It is because my teacher learned about me and broke through the dark, silent imprisonment which held me that I am able to work for myself and for others. It is the caring we want more than the money. The gift without the sympathy and interest of the giver is empty. If you care, if we can make the people of this great country care, the blind will indeed triumph over blindness.

“The opportunity I bring to you, Lions, is this: To foster and sponsor the work of the American Foundation for the Blind. Will you not help me hasten the day when there shall be no preventable blindness; no little deaf, blind child untaught; no blind man or woman unaided?”

There is a long history, both in our country and in other countries around the world, of private philanthropy and these prizes. Going back to the early 18th century, there was a prize for longitude. The Harrisons, father and son, worked for nearly 40 years to develop a clock to precisely measure where they were on the Earth, to measure longitude.

We currently have something called the X Prize, which gave money last year to a company that developed a technology to speed up the cleanup of oil in the ocean after BP's disaster.

Siemens Foundation gives a $100,000 prize. That was given last year to a 17-year-old girl from California who developed a nanoparticle that, with a chemotherapy agent, goes directly to treat tumors. A prize from Siemens was also given to 15-year-old Benjamin Clark, who won the prize for his work in how stars are born.

I love the idea, and I think it is underappreciated, of private philanthropy. Today, I am happy to be here with you to congratulate Sandy Greenberg for putting forward this prize, and I hope it will bring some results.

I really think there is within our grasp the ability to treat and, hopefully, prevent blindness. Thank you.

Senator Coons: Thank you so much, Senator Paul. For the record, I ask for unanimous consent to enter into a colloquy with my colleague from Kentucky.

Mr. President, it certainly hasn't escaped the expert knowledge of my colleagues here today that 2020--the date of the prize of the Sue and Sandy prize we have spoken about--is also the numerical indication of perfect vision. So the 2020 prize, the goal to end blindness by 2020--which is what the Sandy and Sue Greenberg prize is calling us toward--is also a year on the calendar, a year just over 7 years away. In those 7 years, Sandy Greenberg has the courage, the audacity, the strength to believe we can end blindness, working together, end blindness by 2020. It is a goal that could transform our society, our world, and the lives of millions who live in darkness today. We can do it.

At earlier times in our history, as Senator Paul has just reflected, we have come together in response to audacious goals or inspiring prizes to conquer other debilitating diseases. One that Sandy Greenberg shared with me when we sat in person and first talked about this was polio, a crippling disease that struck terror into the hearts of parents every summer.

Dr. Jonas Salk convinced medical researchers at charities like March of Dimes to instead turn their focus from treatment, with devices such as the iron lung, to ending the disease itself. Because of that kind of forward thinking, polio has now been largely eradicated and does not threaten children in the United States, although it remains in a few isolated outposts around the world.

We can see even more cutting-edge examples, right now today, in my home State of Delaware. Just earlier this week, I met with scientific researchers Dr. Kmiec from Delaware State University and the leaders of a company called Orthogenics, who are taking on the audacious goal of ending sickle cell anemia. That particular effort--banishing this disease from bodies around the world through research and development--is something supported by public-private partnership.

In the end, private contributions, extraordinary generosity by Sandy and Sue Greenberg and his family, are critically important.

I happen to believe there is also a vital role for a partnership with the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, and others that have the unique ability to bring researchers together, hopefully for efficient and effective advances in medicine.

So as the great disabilities rights advocate, Helen Keller, once said just to continue the citations of the great forerunner: ``Alone, we can do little; together, we can do so much.''

Even in this era of austerity, these times of budget crunching and belt-tightening, in my view there are few areas more important for our sustained investment than the development of treatments and cures for a devastating, life-changing health conditions like blindness.

In my view, there is also a pressing economic element to this humanitarian equation. Economists have said that most of the new wealth created in this country in the last century came from biomedical research and its application to fighting, changing the human condition. They have told us that curing and treating ancient diseases and conditions is a lot of what has driven the extraordinary economic growth of this country in the last century.

We know that when we as a nation invest in making possible cutting-edge advances, interconnected networks of learning make possible the next gigantic leap. I am so grateful to Sue and Sandy for making possible this challenge, for putting out this pot of gold to literally lift the sights of teams all over the world, of individuals, of communities of effort. It is an effort that could literally bring sight to the blind.

Senator Paul, any closing thoughts?

Senator Paul: I think what is great about the prize is it didn't set a short and limited goal. It goes for the whole thing: They want to prevent and cure blindness.

I think we need more big thinking. We need to talk about let's cure diabetes, let's cure AIDS. Sometimes it takes an incremental approach. But sometimes it takes a big, grand or bold vision.

You mentioned Dr. Salk. In the early days, with the polio vaccine, some actually died from the vaccine. He had to move forward despite some obstacles and despite some setbacks.

Originally, the whole idea of vaccination came from Dr. Boylston in Boston, preceding the time of our Revolutionary War. There, it was a live vaccine taken from the actual pustules of someone who had smallpox, lanced it, stuck it into the pustules, and then cut into a person who did not have smallpox and gave them the disease. He tried to give them a mild variant of this. For this, Dr. Boylston was hounded through the streets and mobs came to the house. The persons he chose to vaccinate first were his kids. That took a very bold step forward to vaccinate his kids. His kids survived, and the rest is history.

George Washington had his family inoculated. Back at the time of the Revolutionary War, more people died from communicable diseases than died from actual bullets. This was true in most wars up until this century.

I think it takes bold vision, and I think Sandy Greenberg will help to move this along with this prize. I love the idea of incentives. We are a country built on incentives. I don't think any scientist is going to jump forward and say, I am doing it only for the prize. But prizes don't hurt, and we should acknowledge that these scientists who can come forward and may come forward with a great cure should be rewarded.

I would like to thank Sandy Greenberg and his family for setting up this prize. I hope that out of this some great good will come for those who have gone blind and for prevention.

Senator Coons: I thank, Senator Paul. I, like you, am confident that some great good will come out of this bold vision, out of this clear initiative.

As we look forward at the health care debates that have raged throughout this chamber and this country in the last few years, I will simply say in closing, as we look to the future of the United States, there is a path forward that says the right way to deal with skyrocketing health care costs and the fiscal challenges they provide is to simply crunch down, to limit, to narrow, to cut off access, and to manage downward.

A competing and I think a more compelling and I think, frankly, a more American view is we should take bold risks. We should innovate. We should dare to speak of curing diseases that are immensely harmful and expenses that are challenges and burdens for our whole country and the world.

This prize--this challenge from Sue and Sandy Greenberg--is something I think should lift the sights of all of us in this country to the very real possibilities of working together to find exceptional cures.

Mr. President, thank you for letting us speak about this extraordinary American, his wife and his family and his quest to end blindness by the end of this decade.

I urge anyone interested in this topic and interested in working with us further to visit the Web site endblindnessby2020.com. I thank Sandy and Sue Greenberg for their courage, their perseverance, and their commitment to bringing light to millions of their fellow men and women around the globe.

Thank you.


Delaware State University
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