Wally Prechter, The University of Michigan & The Fight Against Bipolar Disorder

Creating the Future of Health Care . . . Through Philanthropy

Meeting amazing people is a daily perk of working at the University of Michigan Health System. Soon after I came to Michigan, I had the great privilege of meeting Waltraud “Wally” Prechter, a generous donor and passionate advocate in the fight to treat and cure bipolar disorder. Today, I am proud to call her my friend.

Wally is an extraordinary woman of remarkable courage, passion, zeal and determination. She is a great partner to our Health System, and she is one of my personal heroes.

Twelve years ago, on July 6, 2001, Michigan’s automotive community lost one of its great visionaries when Wally’s husband, legendary business leader Heinz Prechter, committed suicide after an ongoing battle with bipolar disorder. Their daughter, Stephanie, also suffers from the disease.

Deeply motivated to find a cure, Wally turned her deep personal pain and adversity into unwavering advocacy and action. In October 2001, she established what is now known as The Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at The University of Michigan Depression Center to partner with leading U-M researchers and physicians to advance understanding and treatment of bipolar disorder.

More than 20 million people nationwide suffer from mood disorders including bipolar disorder. Unlike cancer or cardiovascular disease, the stigma of mental illness prevents millions from seeking proper medical care. Former president Bill Clinton astutely said “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Currently, less than 10 percent of those suffering from depressive disorders receive adequate treatment.

Wally’s faith in our Health System’s leading scientists and overall ability to create the future of mental health care through discovery has been rewarded. Currently, we are one of only a handful of institutions in the country using stem cell models to study bipolar disorder – exciting work that already has led to new understandings about bipolar brain cells and the differences in the neurons they produce versus those produced by normal brain cells. Our faculty are now investigating whether the activity of the bipolar neurons can be altered to make them behave like healthy ones, which could ultimately lead to the development of more effective treatments. Additionally, UMHS is home to the largest long-term study of individuals with bipolar disorder, with more than 900 participants.

Wally and the incredible UMHS team associated with The Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund are working together to prevent others from experiencing the pain she and her family have experienced. I am in awe of Wally’s dedication and passion to making a lasting difference in the fight against bipolar disorder and to making the world a better place.

Her story is a powerful example of how philanthropy, and the donors who give, are vital partners in our mission to create the future of health care. Wally’s story:

Our Partnership with Michigan Athletics

Creating the Future of Health Care . . . Through Philanthropy

Since 1991, hundreds of U-M student-athletes have dedicated their Thursday evenings to visiting patients and families at our University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. This partnership can profoundly affect the young students as much as it delights our young patients. For many of the athletes, this experience marks the beginning of a commitment to Mott that continues well after they leave the university.

During their time as Wolverine students and football players, Brian Griese, Steve Hutchinson and Charles Woodson were inspired by this tradition, and since then they have become transformational leaders in supporting advancements in children’s health. Brian and Steve founded Champions for Children’s Hearts in 2007 to raise money for the Mott Children’s Hospital and its Congenital Heart Center. Charles joined them in 2011, establishing the Charles Woodson Research Fund. Together, they have inspired former teammates, coaches, sponsors, fans and participants from across the country to support Mott.

Last month, more than 1,000 people who care about kids gathered in Ann Arbor to celebrate the seventh annual Griese/Hutchinson/Woodson Champions for Children’s Hearts events, including more than 100 former U-M student-athletes, NFL stars, celebrities and coaches. The annual three-day gathering features an 11-hour radio-a-thon, a gala dinner with a live auction, and a golf tournament, and has raised more than $6 million to improve care for our pediatric patients.

The event serves as a powerful example of a remarkable journey of philanthropy, fostered by the caring culture of our U-M student-athlete community that has been a Michigan tradition for decades. I am so grateful for the exemplary philanthropic leadership that Brian, Steve and Charles have shown for the community here at the University of Michigan. I’m also grateful for our ongoing partnership with Michigan Athletics and the support our Michigan Men and Women give to UMHS in countless ways.

Please enjoy this video, which beautifully captures the essence of this inspiring relationship between our Health System and Michigan Athletics:

My Mackinac Experience

Last week, I attended the annual Mackinac Policy Conference because we in the Health System are concerned about the well-being of our state’s citizens and our state’s economy —and the health care industry plays a big part in both. As such, it is incumbent upon the University of Michigan Health System as a leading academic medical center to make sure that health care issues remain a priority among the decision-makers in Michigan.

The state Legislature needs to continue working toward increasing Medicaid coverage to more state residents. This is one of the most important issues in the health care space right now. An additional 450,000 Michigan residents will receive coverage if the state Legislature elects to increase coverage using funding available because of the federal Affordable Care Act. Research shows people with health care coverage receive better care earlier, before problems become more serious. And we know that fewer sick days and lower employer health care costs are good for business of all kinds. Increasing coverage will keep the state’s citizens – and the state’s pocketbook – healthier. The bottom line is that a healthier community is good for the well-being of Michigan.

The Mackinac experience was even better than I had hoped. I talked with policymakers, business leaders, government officials, health care peers and journalists who all share a common goal and interest in hastening Michigan’s economic revival and moving Michigan forward.  I am energized and inspired by what I learned and by the people that I met. This is an amazing state that is full of very driven and passionate people. It was gratifying to be with so many people trying to do the right things for the state of Michigan. I look forward to continuing our work to support this effort.

Patrick G. Awuah Jr. on Courage

I love this comment on courage made by Patrick G. Awuah Jr., founder and president of Ghana’s Ashesi University College, during a speech at Babson College:

To really make change, we must have courage: the courage to imagine something new, the courage to act, and the courage to persist through setbacks. We all recognize those leaders whose dramatic acts of courage changed the world.

We are well familiar with the actions of political leaders such Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela; of innovators such as Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Bell; and of pioneering scientists such as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin.

But courage is not always about big, dramatic events. It is often about quiet, determined action every day, at work and at home. The courage to say “Sorry” when you’ve wronged someone. The courage to be introspective and honest with yourself. The courage to join a cause you believe in and to do all you can to help it succeed. The courage to even imagine a different future.


Nine months ago at an event celebrating our Medical School’s Medical Arts Program, I met Alex Kip – an extraordinary and talented young man who is a recent graduate of Michigan’s Musical Theater program and also a cancer survivor. Meet Alex:

Alex Kip is the epitome of courage. In the face of having his Broadway dreams destroyed, he adapted to his new reality and turned it into a way to evolve and reinvent himself as a person and as an artist. It can be easy to give up and become a victim of circumstance. It is not easy to confront and surmount obstacles that get in the way of your dreams. Yet, that’s what Alex has done.

Today, he’s producing a show about his experience called My Other Voice, he’s sharing his story broadly to promote awareness and he is helping to raise funds for cancer research through Pelotonia.

Alex’s story is not unlike many we encounter all of the time in our Health System. Day in and day out, we engage with people who are dealing with scary and stressful life-altering and life-threatening situations.

Let’s be honest – we deliver a lot of bad news. But, more often than not, in the face of that bad news and the journey that follows, we are privileged to witness and experience transformational moments of strength, survival and courage. Nothing is more inspiring.

As you know, I believe that there are several attributes that distinguish extraordinary institutions and extraordinary individuals from ordinary institutions and ordinary individuals, and I call these the 7Cs. The 7Cs are Moral Compass, Compassion, Contribution, Commitment, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. After meeting Alex and because of the many similar stories that abound at UMHS, I’ve decided that it’s time to add Courage as the 8th C.

I’ve seen courage in many forms across our Health System.


Survival Flight   Memorial Wall

There was the Survival Flight crash in 2007. Although I was still in Indiana at the time, I remember hearing the devastating news. To this day, I am moved and inspired by the fact that the UMHS community had the courage to mourn together, support one another and move forward more determined than ever to honor the lives of those we lost.

Then there was last year’s child pornography case, which put our Health System and our University under great scrutiny. It was a troubling and difficult time for all of us, and we courageously took ownership of the issue, implemented important changes and demonstrated that UMHS is an institution of high ethics, and that when a mistake is made, we do not focus on blame, but instead on addressing the root cause of the problem in order to continuously improve and do better.

This year, we have faced significant financial challenges, and when we put out a call to action, you stepped up and implemented improvement strategies that have already had substantial positive impact. We have more work to do and we need to prioritize ongoing good stewardship of our resources, but based on what we’ve already accomplished in these last several months, I am confident that we will weather the storm brought about by increasing competition, sequestration, health care reform and other challenges. This is not easy work, and it takes great courage.

And personally, I learned the true and most raw meaning of courage when I was faced with my husband Mark’s death. That experience taught me about perspective and balance. When you are confronted with something so massive, so unexpected and so disruptive to your life and your future, you become acutely aware of what is truly important to you. And this month, the loss of our dear friend and colleague Dr. Steven Gradwohl once again reminded me of this lesson and of what is fundamentally important – things like family, friends and making a meaningful difference in the world. In the face of life-changing events, you remember who you are and the values that define you.

When you remain true to your values, you have the courage to forge ahead. This is not only true of individuals, but also of institutions.

I am proud that we are a courageous institution that displays this virtue not only in the face of adversity, but always.

By being even more courageous – bolder, more innovative, more entrepreneurial and more risk-taking – we will further distinguish ourselves as leaders and best, as a premier academic medical center and as the institution and the community that will create the future of health care.

What act(s) of courage inspire(d) you?

>>>More on the 8Cs