NORFOLK, Neb. — Pam Chamberlin will never forget the emotion on Johnny Carson's face.
In October 1988, the popular host of NBC's “The Tonight Show” had returned to his hometown with other family members to attend the dedication of the cancer treatment center named in honor of his parents.
Standing there, at the memorial wall showing the faces of Mr. and Mrs. H.L. “Kit” Carson, the man who had been dubbed “The King of Late Night TV” was moved to tears.
Chamberlin, a radiation therapist at Faith Regional Health Services' Carson Cancer Center in Norfolk, also remembers how adamant Carson was about making sure people knew the facility was in dedicated in honor of his parents, not himself.
The impact that Carson's generosity has had on the facility now comes to light as the center prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary this week.
In the mid-1980s, Norfolk had two hospitals — Lutheran Community and Our Lady of Lourdes.
But Norfolk surgeon Dr. Gordon Adams still had to send patients to larger cities for cancer treatments.
“We were referring patients all over the country, basically,” Adams said. “Particularly, with the onset of radiation treatment for breast cancer combined with a lumpectomy, it became pretty obvious that we needed to be able to provide that radiation therapy in Norfolk.”
Daryl Mackender, administrator of Lutheran Community Hospital, and its board agreed that the creation of a radiation treatment center would be a worthy project, but the hospital didn't have enough money in its budget. A capital campaign stalled out about halfway to its $1.2 million goal.
When Carson caught wind of the cause, however, he put the project back on track, making an initial donation of $650,000.
“Johnny Carson bought into the idea and filled in the blanks,” Adams said.
The Carson Regional Radiation Center— a 3,000-square-foot addition on the hospital's northwest corner — was dedicated in October 1988, and the first treatments were administered on Nov. 14, 1988.
By January 1989, the patient load exceeded 25 per day, exceeding initial expectations.
Although Carson died in 2005, his commitment to the cancer center in Norfolk has continued.
An endowment from his estate helped the facility to incorporate Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy technology at the clinic in 2005, a large-bore CT scanner in 2009 and upgrades to the linear accelerator equipment and the purchase of two vans for patient transportation in 2012.
Over the past 25 years, Carson donated $8.95 million to the Carson Cancer Center.
But for Michael Hammond, who served in an administrative role in the facility's beginning stages, Carson's generosity is better measured in the number of lives the center has affected.
Three of Hammond's family members received treatment at the Carson Cancer Center. He said it was a blessing for them to be treated in a state-of-the-art facility close to home.
“Unfortunately, cancer is going to be with us for a long time, and we are an aging population in this region,” Hammond said. “There's no doubt that we're going to continue to need and grow this service.”