How Barbra Streisand is Fighting Women's Heart Disease: A $20 Million Fund-raiser

Noel Bairey Merz, left, and Barbra Streisand
Noel Bairey Merz, left, and Barbra Streisand
 

This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The outrage in Barbra Streisand's voice is genuine and heartfelt. "I can't stand inequality of any form," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, "whether it's about civil rights issues, women, gays -- whatever. Gender inequality really gets me."

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Finding such disparity at the heart of America's medical research system has launched Streisand on the most personally intense of her philanthropic causes. Long known for fervent support of Democratic candidates, Streisand was galvanized into action by the realization that, while heart attacks and strokes annually kill more women than all cancers combined, American medicine continues to regard and study coronary diseases as a male problem to a large degree. In 2008, she created the Barbra Streisand Women's Cardiovascular Research and Education Program to fund work at Cedars-Sinai's Women's Heart Center, overseen by director-cardiologist Noel Bairey Merz.

Streisand set out to raise $20 million for the effort and contributed $5 million of her own money. On June 14, she'll stage the endowment's biggest fund-raiser yet -- an intimate evening at the Malibu home she shares with James Brolin. Former President Bill Clinton, who has battled heart disease, will be the guest of honor. Streisand will perform, along with Josh Groban, David Foster and surprise performers. Tickets top out at $100,000 a couple, expected guests include Sumner Redstone, Haim and Cheryl Saban, Ron and Kelly Meyer and Berry Gordy. Streisand is planning a heart-healthy vegan menu for the 200 invitees. Proceeds will be used to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and hire doctors and research scientists for the center.

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Heart disease annually kills more American women than men. Among U.S. women with heart disease, 42 percent die within a year of having a heart attack, compared with 24 percent of men. "It's an epidemic," says Streisand. "Women don't have the chest pains or left-arm pains. They come in to the hospital with nausea and fatigue, but we don't have the proper diagnostic techniques or machinery because the research in the past 50 years has been done on men."

Streisand says she became aware of the cutting-edge work at Cedars-Sinai after talking with her friend, former Warner Bros. Records president Mo Ostin -- once a patient of Bairey Merz -- about his struggles with heart disease. "I must say, Dr. Bairey Merz really saved my life," says Ostin. "Barbra and I talked about it several times, and she wanted to get involved. She has become the strongest fund-raiser for that organization in its history. This will save lives. When Barbra commits to something, she goes all out."

Bairey Merz says Streisand's endowment provides sustained funding to fill the gap during times when federal grants and other government money drop off because it becomes politically incorrect to support women's health issues -- even those that have nothing to do with reproductive health. "Everything gets bundled together," says Bairey Merz. "It's very sad."

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Says Streisand: "I endowed the program for every woman and for every man who has a woman in his life -- his daughter, his wife, his sister or mother."

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