For the Freis, Dana-Farber Has Always Been Family

by Lauren Emily Frei

Lauren Frei (second from left) and members of Friends prepare to hand out gift bags to patients.
Lauren Frei (second from left) and members of Friends prepare to hand out gift bags to patients.

When I married my husband, Emil Frei IV, in 1992, I knew I was entering into a large family. I just didn’t realize how large – until the first time I walked in the doors of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

My father-in-law, Dr. Emil “Tom” Frei III, was physician-in-chief at Dana-Farber, which he led for close to a decade after the death of founder Dr. Sidney Farber in 1973. To the world, Tom Frei was revered as “the father of combination chemotherapy” for demonstrating that treatment with multiple chemotherapy agents could provide long-lasting remissions in children with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). To me, he was a warm and very funny man who had an incredibly human touch with his patients, colleagues, and family.

That’s what Dana-Farber was for the Freis, a second family. My husband and I often attended Dana-Farber events with Tom and his wife, Dori, and employees loved to see Dr. Frei riding to work each day on his bicycle – in rain, sleet, and snow. My husband remembers accompanying his father to work, and watching him sit by the beds of his patients and put his hand on their shoulders. He had such a wonderful connection with them, and people still call out of the blue to tell us what Dr. Frei did for their husband, or wife, or parent.

Dori was a leader in her own right. She was on the board of directors of the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an all-volunteer group that raises and allocates funds for research and care while performing a variety of gestures for patients and families. Each year, like a proud mom, she led the Hospital Hospitality initiative that arranged for musicians and choral groups to perform at Dana-Farber throughout December.

The interfaith chapel that everyone at Dana-Farber enjoys still bears the imprint of the Freis. Tom always joked that he was “the black sheep” because he went to medical school rather than stay in St. Louis and help run Emil Frei Art Glass, the family business.  When the chapel was built in the 1970s, Tom insisted that several firms submit anonymous designs for the chapel’s stained-glass window screen. In a staff vote, the Frei entry won, and the beautiful screen created by Tom’s brother Bob and his son Steve has brought green, blue, and red rays of light – and hope – into Dana-Farber ever since.

After Emil and I had two daughters, Chelsea and Carly, it was not long before I too found myself volunteering at Dana-Farber. I started at the Friends Boutique (now Friends Place), which provides patients with items such as wigs, scarves, and breast prostheses. In 2001, I was honored when Dori nominated me as a Friends board member, and for years I helped lead a Friends program that distributes gift bags  to Dana-Farber patients. Chelsea, Carly, and their friends loved assembling the bags with me at home, bringing yet another generation of Freis into the Dana-Farber family.

Lauren Frei, Marilyn Wolman, Friends of Dana-Farber
Lauren and fellow board member Marilyn Wolman at a Friends event.

In 2006, I co-chaired the Friends 30th Anniversary Gala, which was extra-special as it honored my father-in-law for his service to the Institute. By this time, Tom Frei was no longer riding his bike to work due to advancing Parkinson’s disease, and Dori was a constant, loving presence at his side in his remaining years as physician-in-chief emeritus. Even in the months leading up to her death in 2009 from ovarian cancer, Dori’s primary concern was the care of her husband. Tom passed away in 2013.

The Freis are still very much involved at Dana-Farber. I was a co-president of the Friends for three years, and remain active with the group. My daughters still help me assemble and distribute gift bags, and it has also become a family tradition each year for the three of us to join the Friends in decorating Dana-Farber for the holidays and giving treats to patients through Holiday Hospitality. Since these activities were something I did with Dori, being able to do them with Chelsea and Carly is very meaningful.

The medical services that Dana-Farber provides are second to none, and the human touch with which they are delivered – by staff and volunteers – is a characteristic that is as valuable as it is rare.  I’m looking forward to volunteering for years to come and spending even more time with my second family.

Learn more about the Friends and how you can get involved.