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A breast-cancer survivor helps heal others by tapping in to people's talents.

Funnel of Love

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Billie Rees West is expecting you.

She greets you at her Grove Avenue home with a debutante's smile and a two-handed welcome that charms you off your feet. In minutes you're seated in her dining room, dappled in peach-colored light, talking about Jamaica and how vibrant it is. Her tanned complexion glows against her white linen dress; her long white hair is tied at the nape with a colorful silk scarf. She serves lemonade in silver cups garnished with mint stalks. On the table is a heaping plate of gingersnaps.

To Billie Rees — and everybody calls her Billie Rees — they are simple enticements. Everything about her home seems to spread cheerfulness like a balm. You don't know it yet, but Billie Rees is recruiting you.

She warms up by telling stories of the big-hearted people she's met and the times she's had in a foreign land. "I used to think hot water was my birthright," she muses. "Well, you can forget that."

In Jamaica, Billie Rees is a pioneer. Now 68, Billie Rees has traveled to the Caribbean island more times than she can count, inspiring friends, family and doctors to accompany her.

It's all part of her mission, one she launched unknowingly in 1982 when she was 49 and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was among the first patients in Virginia to have a lumpectomy. And following the operation, she was determined to beat the illness and discover a world where she could forget it. She turned to the tropics of Montego Bay. There, she found her calling as a salve for others' pain.

"I fell in love with the Jamaican people," she says. "Our senses of humor line up." But not far from its famous beaches, she saw thousands of sick children languishing in its poorest villages. Women with cancers have little chance of having them diagnosed, much less treated.

Today, she says, only a third of Jamaica's nearly 3 million inhabitants are served by two main hospitals. Clinics are understaffed, lacking funds and resources. Billie Rees has been tapping into people's hearts to change this.

Nineteen years later, what began as an effort to get a few medical supplies donated to Jamaican hospitals has become an unstoppable funnel of love. "She's not an easy person to miss," says Dr. Charles E. Bagwell, chairman of the division of pediatric surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals.

Bagwell, who had participated in numerous outreach programs in Jamaica, met Billie Rees in 1993. The two founded Children's Medical Services International, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the quality and availability of health care for children all over the world.

In addition to supplying medical supplies and resources — everything from mammography and heart-monitoring machines to laptops and computer cables — they travel to Jamaica to build relationships with officials and medical staff. Billie Rees and Bagwell have brokered deals to expand the program, too.

Four months ago, thanks to support from VCU's Medical Informatics and Technology Applications Consortium, a NASA Commercial Space Center, the first telemedicine conference was held between Cornwall Regional Hospital in Montego Bay and MCV. It enabled Jamaica's minister of health and doctors there to work with doctors at MCV in a live Internet session.

"I held my breath because I didn't know if it would work," says Billie Rees. It did. Now, Billie Rees says, the possibilities are endless. "I feel like I have a tiger by the tail."

Her friends say she never stops recruiting and hunting resources.

"Billie Rees' charm is … that you can't tell when she's talking with you if she's telling you her story or casing you to come and join the project," Bagwell says. "And the reason is because she is doing both at the same time. It doesn't matter if you're the president of a corporation or a maid. She'll find some way to take advantage of you."

Billie Rees doesn't quit. Not even when her husband died in 1984 or when the cancer returned last year, requiring three months of painful radiation. "I'm not one who can sit on my hands," she says.

On one occasion, Bagwell recalls, the prime minister of Jamaica was giving his state of the union address. An official was told that Billie Rees was in town. He got up in the middle of the address and invited Billie Rees and Bagwell to a party.

"We were the only people there that weren't members of parliament," he says. "You could just as well be called in to meet the prime minister as have some person drive down the road in a rickety old truck and say 'Hey, Billie Rees, there's something going on across town. Why don't you come and go with us.' And you could go and do who knows what."

Paul Anderson, director of management information systems for the Western Regional Health Authority in Montego Bay, met Billie Rees two years ago. She had called, he says, to ask for help. She had a shipment of computers that was being held up at the wharf. "They were not the most up-to-date," Anderson recalls in a phone call from his office in Jamaica. "But when you don't have anything, that makes a difference." Since then, he says, "she has been at me. In a positive way," he adds with a laugh.

Last week the first follow-up to the telemedicine program took place. It was an exchange between Cornwall Regional Hospital, where Anderson oversees computer applications, and MCV. A 7-year-old Jamaican boy had been transported to MCV because he needed a procedure that could save his life but wasn't available on the island.

The operation at MCV was a success; doctors in the U.S. and in Jamaica were able to communicate throughout the procedure. The boy is recovering well, says Billie Rees. A friend of hers in Richmond teaches a kindergarten class, and students have created dozens of cheerful cards that she's eager to give him.

Billie Rees is talking about what she'll do next. She has a friend in the Peace Corps in Moldova, a former Soviet republic. It's a poor country with horrific health care. But for now, she's got to round up a Game Boy.

Billie Rees has hit another friend up for $300 for the Game Boy, which will be added to the growing pile she'll take to the hospital. She can't wait to see the recovering 7-year-old's face.

"What happens to me is the most amazing thing," she muses. "What falls in my lap is what I need." Then she gets an idea. "What I've figured out for you," she continues, "is..."





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