The co-authors of Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers, blog alternate posts weekly. We invite you to post your comments.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Vasek Polak, The Benefactor: From Porsches to Prostates


My IMRT sessions are two-thirds done, and I’m feeling hopeful. After 30 sessions, with only two weeks to go, I got my second PSA reading. To my profound relief, it registered another downward shift—this time from 24 to 17.5. Yeah team!

Yet before I get any further, I need to express my gratitude. In particular, to Vasek Polak, (Pronounced “Vachek”) who funded the state-of-the-art Accelerator with RapidArc technology at St. John’s, in the unit named for him, my every weekday Monday through Friday IMRT destination.

To get from the Emergency Entrance to the IMRT unit, I have to traverse an entire block from Arizona Avenue to Santa Monica Boulevard, take an elevator to the lower level “Garden” level (No basements in this Bel Air crossed with Easthampton part of West LA), then down another long corridor to the electronic doors that close off the Radiation unit.

It is cool and quiet down here: twenty-foot high white and teal colored walls. The lighting is benign (round, inset ceiling bulbs - the kind used to illuminate single paintings) and the only sound a distant faint humming, like you might hear late at night on a giant cruise ship.

Around the last curve and you can see the legend. High on the outside wall, in silver letters—the size of letters I’d seen used to spell Eisenhower’s name on monuments; letters tall enough to cast shadows on the teal blue wall—are listed the Benefactors of this vast medical complex. And there’s my man, albeit given a supporting player credit under John Wayne’s star billing (“The John Wayne Cancer Center”), but there it is and I’d passed under it mindlessly every time I came for IMRT: Vasek Polak Radiation Treatment Center

I’d never heard of Polak, so I started by checking him out with “Dr. Google.” Turns out, he was a Czech immigrant, a genius Porsche mechanic and racing driver with a hair-trigger temper and a knack for making money, a muscular, wavy haired, roughneck wizard who liked to have a flask of Pilzner Czech beer at his side when he worked.

Polak opened the first exclusively Porsche dealership in the United States and built it into a South Bay-based auto empire. From all reports, Polak was overbearing and dictatorial, “A man of strong opinions, which he did not keep to himself,” as one of his mechanic friends told me. “He was an S.O.B. who could also be kind and very generous.” And he used his fortune to fight cancer.

Reading about this cantankerous genius, and interviewing several of his friends and co-workers, I was struck with the fact that Polak was fearless. The size of the challenge didn’t seem to faze him: a faulty ring or piston, an entire transmission to be replaced just hours before a race, grappling with a drunken mechanic—whatever the situation, like a bull-rider, Polak took it by the horns, and dealt with it. All his energy went into problem solving, winning races, and building a Porsche empire. And underwriting state-of-the-art healing facilities.

Polak built major treatment centers in this country as well as in his native Czech Republic. In the Los Angeles area alone, thanks to his generosity, we have the Long Beach Children’s Clinic, the Vasek Polak Health Clinic in Hawthorne (“No appointment or insurance needed.”), Polak’s Breast Diagnostic Center in Torrance, and the St. John’s installation where, thanks to Polak’s over 6 million dollar funding, I am receiving IMRT, each $3,000 session paid for by Medicare and AARP.

IMRT RapidArc technology enables the linear accelerator to deliver precise forms of radiation up to eight times faster than other systems. This allows St. John's patients to receive higher dose radiation precisely targeted to their particular tumor in shorter sessions. As a result, healthy tissue is spared, side effects are held to a minimum, and outcomes are improved.

However, as I pointed out in my last IMRT blog, the continuing availability of IMRT is under siege. Which is why I’m checking in—starting with my gratitude to this amazing dude who thought it was “a hoot” that the slang word for syphilis in the Czech language was “music” (musika). And who is probably saving my life.

I’d like to have gotten to know Vasek Polak, thanked him personally, and had a chance to buy him the best Czech Pilsner.

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