Celebrating 5 Years With Executive Director and Co-Founder Vallie Szymanski

OCSA Newsletter Collage
OCSA celebrates 5 years in 2015, can you tell us how it all started?
While at United Airlines, I was the Manager of International Market Relations and supported the International Sales Force by fostering key relationships with high level business and tourism organizations that resulted in incremental revenue for United Airlines. In 1997, I met Rick and Susan Roman, owners of The Signature Room at the 95th.  Together with their Vice President of Operations, Luigi Millicardi, we collaborated on literally hundreds of events that complemented both business entities. During that process, we became very close friends.  One thing that always impressed me was the way the Romans gave back to the community. Their Charity of the Month Program, instituted in 1992 by Rick Roman and his partner Nick Pyknis raised over $1M that benefited Chicago Charities.  So when Susan was diagnosed with Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer in 2010, I knew that we needed to do something significant.  At first, Susan was very shy about bringing any sort of attention to herself. But the more she thought about it, the more she knew she could make a difference. And in a 3am email to me on January 7, 2011 she said “So I am lying in bed and all I can think about is speeches. And websites. And presentations. And touching as many people as possible to get the word out on this disease. That must always be our main focus, in my opinion.”  And that was exactly the direction OCSA Board Member Dr. Julian Schink suggested that we follow.  At the time he was the Chief of the Gynecological Division at Prentice Women’s Hospital. His exact words were “don’t focus on research or a cure, just get out there and educate women, their families and the medical community about the silent symptoms of ovarian cancer.”  So that’s what we did!  And because of my history with United Airlines, he specifically wanted us to reach out to United Airlines flight attendants because our message would instantly “go global.”  And so there we were, 1 year later, spending 5 days at the United Airlines Flight Domicile at O’Hare Airport, sharing the silent symptoms with flight attendants and pilots!!!

Why the outreach to the Veterinary Community?
Rick, Susan and I wanted a human/animal component.  We loved our dogs and thought a Dog Walk would be a lot of fun.  We also thought that Susan’s dog Bacchus identified her tumor alerting her to her ovarian cancer.  My father was a veterinarian and I have always loved the profession. That’s when I reached out to my veterinarian, Dr. Kurt Klepitsch and asked him what he thought about an awareness program that would include some kind of partnership with the veterinary community. He heartily supported the idea and then we learned that 80% of veterinary school graduates are now women…when my father was in practice only 1% of veterinarians were women.  And the majority of clients who take their pets to their “vet” are women.  Ironically, clients feel very comfortable talking to their veterinarians about their own health problems.  So it was a natural fit for us and the veterinary community has been very welcoming.  They have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help us get the word out on the silent symptoms of ovarian cancer.  Next we discovered the very important “One Health Initiative” that was introduced to me by Dr. Roger Mahr. “One Health is defined as the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment.” His wisdom and never ending support have allowed OCSA to be a perfect example of “One Health” in action.

Can you compare today’s OCSA to OCSA’s beginnings in 2010?
Good question, the first two years, Susan was with us.  Sadly, she passed away in 2012 and it rather knocked the wind out of our sails.  The week she died, we learned from Dr. Klepitsch that his 19 year old niece, Kaitlyn was diagnosed with stage 1 small cell ovarian cancer which is a very deadly form of the disease.  We lost her in 2013. Kurt and his entire family have joined our cause.  Kurt has become our most eloquent spokesman and OCSA’s headquarters now reside at his Gateway Veterinary Clinic in St. Charles, IL.  Our passion continues and we all still get a bit emotional whenever we talk about Susan or Kaitlyn.  We have made tremendous progress, in the past 5 years. In fact, we think that 8-10 people who paid attention to our message actually acted on the early warning signs, visited their doctors and are still here today!

What do you like best about OCSA?
It’s always about the people.  We have the most amazing, wonderful group of supporters spanning all ages.  They give so much and I am very humbled by their friendship and dedication. And I can’t forget my dear husband Joe, Sharrah’s Ch Khalin (the spokes dog) and the 2 black cats!  Couldn’t have done any of this without them!

What does the future hold for OCSA?
We are very excited about the work that is being conducted under the leadership of Dr. Cindy Otto at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. They recently showcased their work at FORCEs, a Hereditary Cancer Conference held for those affected by hereditary ovarian and breast cancers.  Their presentation was entitled “The NOSE Knows! Sniffing Out Ovarian Cancer” they presented with Monell Chemical Senses Center and the Penn Nanotechnology group. They shared their vision for discovering exactly what it is that the dogs are detecting and finding a way to turn that into a route screening test for all women.  Can you just imagine the impact a test like that could have?

We are taking our Dog Walks “on the road.” This year we will have 2 Dog Walks, one in St. Charles and one on the NW Side of Chicago. It is truly a beautiful way to spend time with family, friends and dogs while simultaneously getting the word out on the silent symptoms of ovarian cancer.

In closing, I am reminded of what my dear friend Susan Roman said after we had “closed the deal” for our first OCSA Event at Andy’s Jazz Club in 2010 “Not bad for a couple of old broads!!!” I suspect the founding OCSA gal pals Marcy, Kelly, Robin, Sam, Abbey, Marissa, Brigid, Denise, Regina, Yoko, Barb, Dorothy, Kathy, Sheila, Natacha, Drucella, Kris, Marilyn, Paulette, Mae, Darlene, Deb, Debbie, Bev, Denyse, Merrill, Robyn, Cindy, Deenie,  Kristin, Peggy, Carolyn, Anna, Radka, Leah, Rebecca, Theresa and Mary just might agree!
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