Kirk and Anne Douglas Donate $2.3 Million to Children's Hospital Los Angeles for Surgical Robot

Kirk Douglas Surgical Robot Donation - H 2015
Courtesy of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

Kirk Douglas Surgical Robot Donation - H 2015

The couple, married more than 60 years, are longtime supporters of the hospital.

Kirk and Anne Douglas — longtime supporters of Children's Hospital Los Angeles — have committed $2.3 million in new funding to be used for the purchase of a da Vinci robot for the hospital's division of pediatric urology in the department of surgery. 

Portions of the substantial financial gift will also support the training of physicians in the use of the surgical robot, which will be used on children as young as 4 months old to help correct urologic problems. CHLA's Robotic Program was launched in 2009, making it the first of its kind on the West Coast. To date, more than 400 successful surgeries have been performed, according to the hospital.

In an exclusive interview with THR, Kirk said the "bottom line is that it's a great help for children." "With this new machine, we will be one of the only hospitals on the West Coast to help children in this way," he said, referring to the surgeries aided by the da Vinci robot, which enables surgeons to operate with enhanced vision, precision, dexterity and control. "Before, there were areas that needed to be reached during an operation that they couldn't get to."

"This single piece of equipment will create more hope and better treatment outcomes for thousands of children suffering from a variety of issues that can be improved surgically," said Richard Cordova, FACHE, president and CEO of CHLA. Added Roger E. De Filippo, M.D. and chief of the division of urology: "It allows for smaller incisions, precise levels of accuracy and magnified high-resolution 3D images of the surgical field. It is an incredible gift."

And one that continues the couple's decades-long tradition of philanthropic endeavors. The duo started The Douglas Foundation in 1964 and over the years their charitable activities have included the rebuilding of more than 400 playgrounds at Los Angeles elementary schools, the Anne Douglas Center for homeless women at the Los Angeles Mission, and the Harry's Haven Alzheimer's unit at the Motion Picture & Television Fund's retirement home, among many others. 

In July 2012, Kirk, 98, and Anne, 84, announced a $50 million pledge to further support the causes they are most passionate about, giving made possible by the high-profile auctions of their extensive art collection. More recently, Kirk backed the Kirk Douglas Fellowship at the AFI Conservatory, new in 2015.

The couple sat down with THR at their modest Beverly Hills home on March 25 to discuss the CHLA donation and why they're so passionate about the health and welfare of children. They also shared some laughs about why Kirk no longer enjoys slides, which he lovingly blames on his wife of more than 60 years — proof that they both are still going strong. 

How does it feel to know that this machine will help thousands of children?
Anne: I think it will help infants of 3 and 4 months, even. This is all, for me, outer space. I don’t understand how it works. But if it’s that important and they need it so badly and they have wanted it for awhile, so be it.
Kirk: This is the first time we are gifting a complicated machine. We don’t know how robotic surgery works, but we know that they need it for children. This is the first time we’ve given a machine that we don’t know what it does, but the doctors are pleased with it. We’re giving something that is very useful, and that feels good. 

Why did you decide to gift this particular piece of equipment?
Because we have done a lot for the children of Los Angeles — it’s been one of our interests, among others. For example, I read in the Los Angeles Times 15 years ago or more how the playgrounds for children at elementary schools were in poor condition with accidents all the time, and so therefore, they closed the playgrounds and kept the children inside or on the steps. It bothered me. At the time, Mayor Riordan [was in office] and I called him and he said to come over. The next morning at 8 a.m., I brought a girlfriend of mine and by 8:40 a.m. we had $2.5 million from people we called. We started to refurbish nearly all the elementary schools in the L.A. school district.
Kirk: One thing that annoyed me is that when we attended the inauguration of every playground, my creative wife said it would be very nice if Kirk Douglas would go down the slide. I tell you, I did that for about 9 years, and I said, "Honey, please finish this project because I can’t go down any more slides." Fortunately, she finished and I don’t go down a slide any more. (Anne laughs.)

Did you ever think you’d see a time in your life when robots would be so crucial in surgery?
That’s another thing. I have lived almost 100 years, and the thing is, the past 50 years have been brought about by technology. Everybody has a cellphone. Everybody can talk to anyone else and my complaint is that words have been diminished. Letters will not be used. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but I mean, when you get to be 99, then nobody cares what you think. (Anne laughs.)
Anne: We really wanted to do something for the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. We wrote to them and they said they would love to have some money. All these organizations are always needing funds and I was told by a very important financier a long time ago not to give money for the big part, give money specifically for what they need. We asked the hospital if they had a wish list and they had a wish list of three incredible machines. We picked the most complicated and the most expensive one and we gave extra money for the doctors to make themselves familiar with the machine. I never saw it until I googled it, and I can’t tell you how impressed I was by what we were giving.

You’ve been involved with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for more than 16 years. Why do you think you’ve been able to enjoy a successful partnership all these years?
My husband and I feel that during these current times, children get the bad end. We have created this atmosphere in the world. You have to try to do what you can to make their lives a little bit better and make them believe that the world is not all that bad. The Children’s Hospital helps with that. Whatever it is, we’re willing to do.
Kirk: I came from poverty. We didn’t have enough to eat. We lived by the railroad tracks and at night, there would be a knock at the door and some hobo would be looking for food. My mother said to me, "You must always try to help other people." That stayed with me. That has always been a part of my world. I know what poor kids deal with. Anything we can do to help other people, we do. It’s a selfish thing because it makes you feel good when you help others. Except for when my wife made me ride down the slide. (Anne laughs.)

Have you identified any other items on the hospital's wish list for upcoming gifts, or other causes you want to support?
Anne: If the funds are not running out of the foundation, we will do what we can to support various important necessary things that we are interested in and that are needed. That might be the Children’s Hospital, it might be something else. But we will continue to donate where we think it is needed as long as the money doesn’t run out.
Kirk: I started my interest in helping other people because I worked my way through college. Years ago, the first thing that I established was a scholarship for black students because when I was in college, I saw no black students. For years, I have supported a scholarship. We try, in a small way, to help other causes, and Anne helps take women off the street. We have a nice building and nice programs. Anne is fantastic with people who have nothing. 

Looking back on these 50-plus years of the foundation, is there a cause or gift you’re most proud of?
Kirk: I’m proud of everything that we do to help. I'm proud of what Anne does with the women. I’m proud of the children who are playing on rubberized surfaces and modern equipment. I'm proud of the letters from the students who tell me that they marvel at the scholarships. I don’t know how to pick out one. I’m so proud of everything.